It's been a while, but Brad Keselowski was back on pole position in fine fashion after blitzing the field with a stunning final round lap in qualifying for Sunday evening's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway.
Keselowski hasn't been on pole since last autumn's race at New Hampshire, but he put the matter beyond doubt with an impressive lap of 27.492s (178.874mph) to put him a whisker under two tenths of a second ahead of the competition led by Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch.
CLICK: Full qualifying results for the Bojangles' Southern 500
"This is probably the biggest pole I have ever had as far as what the track means," said Keselowski. "I have always thought of Darlington as being one of the elite tracks in NASCAR ... You look at Daytona, probably Bristol, Charlotte and Darlington as definitely in the top-five, maybe top-two or three to our sport and what it means.
"When I think of that, I think that any success you have on those tracks is just a 'whoa' moment. It is huge. So in that sense this is a great accomplishment to me personally and it means a lot.
"This track itself is so challenging for a race car driver," he added. "If you make one little mistake you can take a fast race car and make it a ball of wrecked metal. To be able to put all of that together means a lot to me."
It's Keselowski's ninth pole in 222 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. After taking five poles in 2014 alone, this is his first this season and he admitted that the lack of success in qualifying this year had been getting to him.
"We haven't had as strong of a year as what we had last year and I think that probably wears on everybody a little bit, including myself, but I feel like we have positive momentum and you always want to see results that showcase that," he said. "This is one of those results. I feel like we can carry this through the next 12 weeks.
"I am really pleased with today's qualifying result and the momentum we are carrying and I think our team outlook for the next 12 weeks and our goal of winning a second championship," he added.
After a strong showing in Friday's extended practice sessions to test the new low downforce package being used at Darlington this weekend, Kurt Busch was fastest in the first round of qualifying but had to settle for a front row spot alongside Keselowski after coming up short in the pole shoot-out round.
"Our first lap out was almost too fast," Busch admitted. "The car almost drove too good. And then, the second outing, I messed up and got really sideways through 3 and 4, but the car had enough speed to make it back around and post fourth best. And so, then the challenge becomes what do we adjust and how do we get the most out of the tyres that are already worn out?
"It was quite exciting with the way that the format is set-up with three runs to go for the pole. Each run out, you lose so much grip in the tyres. It's a challenge to try to find the right balance. And, it turns into fun."
Busch was still able to beat his team mate and defending race champion Kevin Harvick, who was 0.027s further back and who will take up third place on Sunday night's grid alongside Keselowski's team mate Joey Logano.
"We were fairly good in the first two rounds," said Harvick. "I felt like I could have pushed harder in those two rounds to go faster; and that last round, we just kind of missed the balance on our Budweiser/Jimmy John's Chevy. We were just too loose and didn't quite adjust it enough to keep the tightness in the car like you need to to go fast. We have a really, really fast car, so we're looking forward to tomorrow night."
"We were in the ballpark," noted Logano. "I think all the Team Penske cars were pretty fast. I am proud of everybody there. Brad obviously laid down a good one there at the end. He never slowed down ever and everyone else was slowing down each lap. It was interesting to see that. We were just a little free all of qualifying there. We just never jumped the fence with it."
Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon will start his final race at Darlington from fifth place alongside Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin.
"I'm excited," said the four-time former Cup champion. "That was a really nice qualifying effort. The car was rock solid. We didn't make a qualifying run yesterday, so I was pretty nervous coming into today with our 3M Chevy team. The guys really focused on the race, so I'm equally or more excited about the race than I am how well this qualifying session went. The car definitely has the speed. We kept up with the tyres and the track, so I'm very proud of that top five."
Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. will line up in seventh alongside Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr., while Wood Brothers' Ryan Blaney will start from ninth alongside JGR's Kyle Busch, with Richard Petty Motorsports's Aric Almirola and Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard rounding out the top 12.
"It was decent," Truex summarised. "I think you always want to be that guy on the pole or on the front row, but it was definitely a decent effort by all the guys on our Furniture Row Chevy.
"It was definitely an interesting session. You're wearing out tyres and you're slowing down and you're trying to figure out how you can go faster the next time around, the next time out. So, it's a tricky qualifying session. But we were able to pick up spots each round, which was good. We've got a really good race car. We were hoping for a Top 10 start and we can get 'em from there tomorrow night."
"It was a great effort out there today," offered Stenhouse. "The guys did a great job from yesterday in first practice when we were off. We made adjustments all day and got [the #17] rolling pretty good. I am real happy with that effort.
"It is two races in a row now where we have made it to the third round, which is important. We are getting speed out of our cars. We have to make the right adjustments now. We went too far at Bristol last time. I am proud of the effort and we will continue to make sure that we get our race cars better for the race."
For Kyle Busch, tenth on the grid is a strong recovery after he put his primary race car out of action by hitting the wall during Friday afternoon's second practice, sending him to the backup for the race. Since the incident happened prior to qualifying the change of cars will not require him to start from the back of the grid.
"Really proud of my M&M's Crispy Toyota team for getting this backup car ready and in good enough shape to qualify in the top ten," said Busch. "We'll have some more adjustments to make during the race tomorrow, but I feel confident we can get things figured out pretty quickly once the green flag drops."
While Busch escaped having to start at the back, Danica Patrick was not so lucky after a first round accident in qualifying meant that SHR had to unload the backup #10 car for tomorrow's race.
"Just too loose in qualifying today and got into the wall on our third run, so we have to the back-up car for the race," she confirmed after officially qualifying in 30th place. "It's definitely not the position we wanted to be in going into tomorrow, but it's a long race, so we'll just try our best to gain track position every chance we get."
Greg Biffle also crashed during qualifying, but the Roush Fenway team was optimistic of repairing the #16 car without the need to break out the back-up car for the race.
"That was definitely disappointing to get so loose there and hit the wall," said Biffle, who will hopefully start from 24th on the grid tomorrow. "We will have to wait and see how bad the damage is and decide on repair versus backup.
"It stinks because our Ortho Ford Fusion has had good speed all weekend and we were really hopeful to qualify well and get a good starting position. The guys have been working hard all weekend though, so I have no doubt they will get us ready to race tomorrow night and it is a long 500 miles, so we will go to work and see what we can make out of it."
In other notable qualifying results, JGR's Carl Edwards just missed out on making it to the final round and will start the race from 13th place alongside team mate Matt Kenseth.
"Our Camry was a lot faster than 13th, so a little frustrated with that," admitted Edwards. "We've got a really fast race car. This track is so much fun to drive. We've got 500 miles to work our way up there and I just can't wait to go racing. It's so much fun with this package. Our ARRIS Toyota is really good."
"We did a lot better than we did last year," said Kenseth. "Just the first round, we did okay. The second round, we just had a lot less grip. We changed the balance a little bit on the car and I didn't get through 1 and 2 very well. That's where I think we lost a lot of our speed, so we're just a little bit off, but it was better than it was yesterday and 14th is a lot better than where we started last year."
Hendrick's Kasey Kahne qualified in 15th with Ganassi's Kyle Larson starting alongside him, while SHR's Tony Stewart was 17th. Row 10 sees another Hendrick/Ganassi pairing with Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray starting side-by-side, while Michael Waltrip Racing's David Ragan takes 21st place next to Chase Elliott making his first Cup start at Darlington ahead of taking over the #24 car from Gordon in 2016.
"In this afternoon's first round I was way too free in turn 3," he explained. "Felt pretty good in the other corners. Round two I was still free, but much tighter in the center through the late exit. I'm happy with everyone's hard work and excited to be in tomorrow's show. Thanks to all my #25 guys."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start from 26th and AJ ALlmendinger from 34th in the JTG Daugherty Racing #47 Chevrolet, which for the rest of the season will bear a special commemoration decal in memory of the late Justin Wilson who was one of Allmendinger's team mates when Michael Shanks Racing went to victory lane in the 2012 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
Josh Wise, Timmy Hill and Travis Kvapil were the three drivers who failed to race their way into the 43-car starting grid for Sunday's race and who will be going home a day early.
There are no further practice sessions scheduled now before the 367 lap, 501.3 mile Bojangles' Southern 500 gets underway at 7pm local time on Sunday, midnight BST.
See full qualifying results for Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway.