Matt Kenseth clinched his second pole of the season on Thursday night, beating Joey Logano to the top spot by a surprisingly comfortable two tenths at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"That was a good lap for us - all three laps were pretty good," said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. "We made the right adjustments and had it good enough there for the pole."
The 43-year-old set a time of 27.799s (194.252mph) on the 1.5-mile intermediate track ahead of the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series calendar. It's Kenseth's 15th pole in 556 races and his first-ever at NASCAR's home track, his previous best start here being from second place on the grid in October 2011.
CLICK: Full qualifying times from Charlotte Motor Speedway
"They asked me before qualifying if I thought I had a shot at the pole and I was like, I don't know. I've only won 13 poles in I don't know how many seasons I've raced," he said afterwards. "I said that I thought we already hit our quota for the year from Bristol. I wasn't really expecting to get another one. We doubled up!"
The big advantage of winning bonus for such a long race isn't so much the starting position itself, but the pick of the pit stalls for Sunday evening's 400-lap race.
"It's the longest race on the circuit so you have the most time to get to the front, [but] I think starting in front is important," he said. "You want to have good track position, good pit selection and all those things. If you do get a little off and you're chasing the set-up a little with the track changing, you have a little bit of buffer being toward the front hopefully.
"You like to have speed in your cars: if you have cars driving good and they're slow then you're probably not going to win with them. Your goal is to always have a lot of speed and get them driving good," he pointed out.
"The track typically always goes through changes here, especially if the sun is out from the beginning of the race to the end of the race," he added. "Track position is always important, you always want to start as far forward as you can.
"Excited we're on the pole, excited that all the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas had some speed tonight that was encouraging," he said. "I think we had three cars in the top-five. You still have to get it driving good Saturday and you still have to be able to be there for 600 miles and do all those things, but it's nice to have the speed."
The Toyota stable have been struggling for raw speed for much of the last year, continually coming off third best to the Chevrolet and Penske camps, so this outcome was especially encouraging for team owner Joe Gibbs.
"He was just happy all our cars qualified really well," said Kenseth. "Obviously, last year was a little bit of a down year and feel like we've all been getting better this year. It's nice to see the cars had some speed."
Kenseth's team mates Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin both made it through to the final round of qualifying on Thursday and will start this weekend's race line astern behind Kenseth from third and fifth respectively, with Hamlin seeking to repeat his success here from last week's All-Star Race.
"That was good. That's a good day and we have some fast race cars," said Edwards, the team's newest recruit having moved to JGR from Roush Fenway Racing over the off-season. "I'm really excited about racing. Now we've got no pressure and we can just have a little bit of fun. We can work on the balance and get ready for the race. We have a good pit stall and this is just good."
The only member of the squad to miss out was Kyle Busch, who is driving in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race since his return from injuries sustained at Daytona in February. If he's to be in with a shot of making the Chase play-offs then he'll need to deliver week-in and week-out from now until September, so he had been hoping for better than 17th place on the grid.
"I would have thought we were better than that," admitted Busch, who became a father at the start of the week when his wife Samantha gave birth to their first child. "Just a tick off on speed and balance was off the first segment and then the second segment, the first run it was way too tight. We adjusted on it and I felt like we made a really good change. The car drove good, it just didn't pick up any speed. Kind of just stayed the same."
Also performing well at Charlotte on Thursday were the Ford camp, who split the top six evenly with the JGR Toyotas. Penske's Joey Logano will start on the front row just ahead of Roush's Greg Biffle, while the second Penske of Brad Keselowski - who is also celebrating first-time fatherhood this week - takes up the sixth spot.
“It was a good effort for our team - you look at where we ended in practice, I wasn't too worried about where our practice speeds were, but it wasn't very glamorous that's for sure," he said after finishing 20th in the sole practice session available to the field before qualifying.
"The first round I was like, 'Maybe I was a little overconfident going into this one,'" he admitted. "We were 22nd after the first round and [crew chief] Todd Gordon made some good adjustments. I made some adjustments on my line and was able to get some speed out of our car and I think we were seventh on the next one and then second the last, so I'm proud of my team.
"Last year, our weak point in qualifying was maintaining that speed throughout three sessions, and this year it seems like we don't have much speed the first session, but we're getting better throughout them," he noted. "I'd much rather be good in the last session! It's a lot of fun to have a car that qualifies well each week so far here, so it's been a lot of fun."
The surprise of the session was the comparative weakness of the Chevrolet cars, who have pretty much had the run of intermediate tracks of late but who this week find their highest starter down in eighth place where Stewart Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick lines up on row four alongside yet another Toyota, the #55 Michael Waltrip Racing car now driven for the rest of the season by David Ragan.
"We were just too tight," admitted the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "The Budweiser/Jimmy John's Chevrolet team worked really hard all day and that gives us a decent starting position for Sunday. It's a long race and we will have to keep up with our adjustments to stay up front all race long."
Chevrolet do have strength in numbers however, and the rest of the top 12 shoot-out round was full of cars sporting a bow tie. Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson claimed ninth to put him alongside Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., and Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon lines up in 11th putting him next to SHR's Tony Stewart.
Notably absent from progressing to the final round of qualifying on Thursday night were any of the Hendrick Motorsports squad. Jimmie Johnson was the best of the quartet, but missed out out by five hundredths of a second and will start from 13th as a result putting him alongside SHR's Kurt Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get underway from 15th, sharing row eight with Ryan Blaney in the Wood Brothers #21; Jeff Gordon will take his last Coca-Cola 600 green flag in 18th place; and Kasey Kahne will start down in 33rd place after cutting a tyre in the first round of qualifying.
"We just had a flat left-rear, it happened on my run," explained Kahne, who will now head to the green flag on row 17 alongside his near-namesake Casey Mears in the Germain Racing #13. "I was loose and about spun out in three and was kind of wondering what the deal was. I knew we were really fast in practice. I came in and when I got to the stall it only had like five pounds in it, which is very low. You can't change them unless you advance to the next round, but it was flat for I don't know when it happened, but it was flat a long time [so] we start 33rd on Sunday.
"It was great today, this afternoon it was really strong, it would have been strong tonight," Kahne sighed. "It's frustrating at any time, but it does happen. I think this is my third one since we started this style of qualifying last season. Third or fourth time we have had that, it happens. It's part of it and you just figure out how to be really good on Sunday and pass cars."
Despite starting much further forward than Kahne, Jeff Gordon - who announced this week that he will be a full-time race commentator for Fox Sports next year after he retires from competition at the end of 2015 - was just as frustrated as his team mate.
"I'm just disappointed, the car definitely had speed in it," said the four-time former Cup champion. "That first run the car was near perfect. I was really happy with it and looking forward to the next session, maybe even the third session. We knew that the track would probably tighten up; I carried a lot of speed down into one and just never could get to the white line.
"Looking at the times that the guys ran up top, up front there I think I had to be that aggressive," he insisted. "But at the time I was thinking maybe I drove in there a little bit too aggressive. I certainly know we have a much better car than that ... Now we just go to work on it for the race."
Gordon and the rest of the field will have two 50-minute practice sessions on Saturday to get their cars into optimal race trim. However in contrast to the rest of the season, Friday is a rest day at the speedway given over to fan events as NASCAR makes best use of the long weekend provided by the Memorial Day holiday on Monday.
Not hanging around the Sprint Cup paddock for the rest of the weekend are Jeb Burton, Mike Bliss, Travis Kvapil, Jeff Green and Brendan Gaughan, all of whom failed to qualify for the 43-car grid.
See full qualifying times from Charlotte Motor Speedway