Matt Kenseth put Joe Gibbs Racing on pole position for the first time in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, after securing the top spot for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway by a margin of just 0.022s over Brad Keselowski on the 0.533-mile short track.
It's the first time that Kenseth has been on pole since last year's November Chase race at Texas Motor Speedway. It's his 14th pole in 552 Cup starts and the second time in 31 races at Bristol that he will lead the field to the green flag.
Kenseth clinched pole with a lap of 14.917s (128.632mph) in the final top-12 round of qualifying, but that wasn't the fastest time of the entire session. That honour went to Keselowski's Penske team mate Joey Logano who put in a lap of 14.841s (129.290mph) in the first round; even that was still some way off the track qualifying record of 131.362mph set by Kevin Harvick in the Cup Series' most recent visit to Bristol last August.
CLICK: Full qualifying and Friday practice times from Bristol Motor Speedway
"Finishing up front is the most important part, but our qualifying overall this year has been better," Kenseth said after the end of the session. "Last weekend was an exception and wasn't good, but overall for JGR I feel like we've been qualifying good.
"There's not a lot of great pit stalls here and it's a good place to be in front and hopefully stay up there and out of trouble," he explained. "I wasn't really thrilled the way my car drove in race trim today, but in qualifying trim it would run a fast lap so I certainly think we have some work to do tomorrow and certainly see throughout practice who the better cars are and the cars that run good for longer runs in practice and can keep their speed are the guys that are going to be the guys to beat on Sunday."
"We were really pretty balanced," he continued. "We were a little too tight the first run and had it closer the second run. It was as free as I wanted it to be that last run. They did a great job with adjustments and making it better each and every run. I think our last run was our best lap on oldest tyres so they did a good job adjusting."
Kenseth - who earlier in the day had announced that his 21-year-old son Ross would be making his Xfinity Series début at Chicagoland Speedway on June 20 with JGR - is setting his sights on some overdue improved race day luck this weekend after several near misses so far in 2015.
"Fontana I felt like everything was all lined up there and then got caught by the caution and broke apart in the pits," he sighed. "Then Martinsville there were a couple runs there that I thought we had a really good shot too and got a late caution and couldn't get going on the last restart. I felt like we were headed that direction and had ourselves in position to win a couple and then Texas happened and we ran just terrible and I did everything wrong – just had one of those days. I hope we can get back on the rebound and run like we did the previous couple of weeks."
Starting alongside Kenseth on the front row, Brad Keselowski said that he expected a lot of changes in the relative performances of the cars over the next couple of days as rubber gets laid down on the track.
"It's still very, very early in the weekend and the track is really not indicative of what we're gonna have to race," he said. "As it continues to change you'll see some comers and goers from what we saw today.
"Either way, we're reasonably happy with our day to qualify second," he insisted. "You get that close and it seems to sting a little bit more because it didn't take much to find the next place, but it could be worse and we're thankful for a decent starting spot and hopefully a great spot on pit road to help us all day on Sunday."
Starting on the second row, Kenseth's team mate Carl Edwards gets his best start since moving to JGR at the start of the year in third place alongside Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick.
"Pit selection is going to be great and the pit crew is fast," said a happy Edwards. "If everything goes the way I think it is then I think we should be leading after the first caution and that would be great."
"We just got really loose on entry into the corner," said a slightly less enthusiastic Harvick. "We carried that through all three session. Just kind of really had to guard against it all three runs. All-in-all the Jimmy John's team did a great job and still a solid starting spot. We have a lot to work on, but a good starting spot for us.
A third member of the JGR squad turns up on row three with Denny Hamlin set to start from fifth place alongside Penske's Joey Logano.
"It's nice," said Logano. "On the outside is gonna be good. It's frustrating when you win the first two rounds and then you don't really make it happen on the third one. It's frustrating because you feel like you've got the pole sitting right here with the Autotrader Fusion, but I just got too loose in the last round.
"Half the battle is you're trying not to wreck and then you're also trying to go fast" he added. "I felt like I lost a lot in three and four just trying to keep the back from spinning around. It's still not that bad. I'm mad at sixth, so at least that's a good problem to have!" he laughed.
Row four puts SHR's Kurt Busch next to Kasey Kahne, who paced the sole Friday practice session earlier in the day and who finished qualifying as the highest placed car from the Hendrick Motorsport camp.
"It felt pretty good," said Kahne. "The first run I thought was really good. I screwed-up a little bit, but the car had really great balance and a really good feel. The second run, we didn't adjust and it felt a little free. But we moved on easily.
"Then the third round, we tightened up because of being a little free the run before - it was tightened up in too many ways," he admitted. "I just couldn't put together a fast enough lap there at the end. But, I still felt like the balance in the car is doing everything I want it to, I just had to hold the brake a little too long and slowed my middle down which slowed the exits in the straightaway down, but we were fairly close."
Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard and Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray make up the fifth row, and the final drivers to make it through to the third and final round of qualifying were JGR stand-in David Ragan still deputising for Kyle Busch, and RCR's Austin Dillon.
Just missing out on making it through to the pole-shootout round was Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. who missed out on progressing by 0.016s. The #88 will start from 13th place with Ganassi's Kyle Larson on the outside in the #42. Further back, RCR's Ryan Newman will take the green flag in 18th place and SHR team co-owner Tony Stewart will have to work his way forward from 21st.
Hendrick's Jeff Gordon will start from 23rd place alongside Brett Moffitt who continues to substitute in the #55 Michael Waltrip Racing car for Brian Vickers. Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and SHR's Danica Patrick are partners on row 13.
The big surprise was Jimmie Johnson failing to make it through from the first round and ending up with 28th place on the grid. Johnson won last week's race at Texas but admitted afterwards that he'd been suffering from a bad cold and had been lucky to finish the race at all, and was clearly still under the weather during the week coming into Friday's qualifying.
MWR's Clint Bowyer, Front Row Motorsports' Chris Buescher, Richard Petty Motorsports' Sam Hornish Jr. and Tommy Baldwin Racing's Alex Bowman all had to rely on owners points to make the grid, as did Mike Bliss (Go FAS Racing), Cole Whitt (FRM) and Alex Kennedy (Circle Sport). Brendan Gaughan (Premium Motorsports) and Ron Hornaday Jr. (The Motorsports Group) were the two drivers that failed to qualify for the 43-car starting grid for Sunday's race.
The remaining drivers still in the running now have two further 55-minute practice sessions on Saturday to prepare their cars for Sunday afternoon's 500 lap, 266.5-mile race. However the forecasts suggest that the weather may prove increasingly problematic as the weekend progresses, with a chance of thunderstorms on Saturday growing to more persistent inclement weather on Sunday and lasting into Monday.
NASCAR has its revolutionary Air Titan 2.0 track dryers on hand in the case of rain and is further helped by the short track nature of the circuit which means less overall concrete to dry before racing can get under way. Bristol also has floodlights which mean that it's possible to race long after sunset. Even so, there is still a significant risk that Sunday's schedule may be considerably disrupted and a chance that the race may even be delayed until Monday in the worst case scenario.
See full qualifying and Friday practice times from Bristol Motor Speedway