Tony Stewart claimed his first pole position of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season in qualifying for Sunday's race at Atlanta.
The reigning champion beat the previous benchmark set by points leader Greg Biffle with a lap of 29.787 seconds at an average speed of 186,121 mph around the mile-and-a-half oval. His pole is only his 14th in 489 starts in NASCAR's elite series.
"I'm not very good at qualifying, to be honest," Stewart said. "We get so focused on the race balance of the car that I've just never historically in this series been a good qualifier. Qualifying has obviously not been my strong suit."
Stewart bounced back with a rare pole after dropping to 10th place in the points following last weekend's Bristol race where he crashed with Matt Kenseth while fighting for the lead. At present he risks losing the bonus points he could earn towards his Chase seeding for his three race victories.
Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch and Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr had been fastest in practice earlier and completed their qualifying runs after the three-time champion but neither managed to beat his flying lap in the Stewart-Haas Chevrolet.
Busch ended up third fastest while Biffle's Roush Fenway team-mate Matt Kenseth was fourth ahead of five-time Atlanta victor Jeff Gordon, who won the event a year ago. The Hendrick driver heads into Atlanta still in contention for a wildcard spot in the Chase. Busch currently holds the last spot available for the play-off.
The JGR Toyotas had a strong session, all three ending up among the top 10. Denny Hamlin qualified seventh while Joey Logano, still with a chance of a wildcard, set the ninth fastest time.
Three-time Atlanta winner Carl Edwards, still looking for his first victory of 2012 to boost his chances of making the Chase, was 12th but slowest of the Roush cars in qualifying trim.
Practice pacesetter Truex could not back up his speed in qualifying, ending up only 28th in the order on the day his new MWR deal was announced.
David Stremme was the fastest of the non-guaranteed drivers in 31st, while Michael McDowell, Josh Wise, Stephen Leicht and Mike Bliss failed to make the field.
Pos Driver Team/Car Time Gap 1. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet 29.787s 2. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford 29.863s + 0.076s 3. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota 29.888s + 0.101s 4. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford 29.916s + 0.129s 5. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet 29.918s + 0.131s 6. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota 29.930s + 0.143s 7. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota 29.932s + 0.145s 8. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet 29.945s + 0.158s 9. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota 29.954s + 0.167s 10. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford 29.959s + 0.172s 11. Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet 29.968s + 0.181s 12. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford 29.979s + 0.192s 13. Aric Almirola Petty Ford 29.988s + 0.201s 14. David Ragan Front Row Ford 30.010s + 0.223s 15. Sam Hornish Jr Penske Dodge 30.031s + 0.244s 16. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet 30.038s + 0.251s 17. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet 30.052s + 0.265s 18. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet 30.061s + 0.274s 19. Casey Mears Germain Ford 30.117s + 0.330s 20. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 30.119s + 0.332s 21. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge 30.121s + 0.334s 22. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet 30.172s + 0.385s 23. Danica Patrick Stewart-Haas Chevrolet 30.184s + 0.397s 24. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet 30.189s + 0.402s 25. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota 30.211s + 0.424s 26. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet 30.227s + 0.440s 27. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet 30.231s + 0.444s 28. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota 30.234s + 0.447s 29. David Gilliland Front Row Ford 30.235s + 0.448s 30. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota 30.240s + 0.453s 31. David Stremme Inception Toyota 30.289s + 0.502s 32. Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford 30.314s + 0.527s 33. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 30.335s + 0.548s 34. Jason Leffler Robinson-Blakeney Toyota 30.349s + 0.562s 35. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet 30.357s + 0.570s 36. Scott Speed Leavine Ford 30.370s + 0.583s 37. Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 30.398s + 0.611s 38. Reed Sorenson Humphrey Smith Chevrolet 30.430s + 0.643s 39. Scott Riggs R3 Chevrolet 30.438s + 0.651s 40. Landon Cassill BK Toyota 30.592s + 0.805s 41. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota 30.710s + 0.923s 42. TJ Bell FAS Lane Ford 30.722s + 0.935s 43. JJ Yeley Baldwin Chevrolet 30.450s + 0.663s Did not qualify: Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 30.499s + 0.712s Josh Wise Front Row Ford 30.564s + 0.777s Stephen Leicht Circle Sport Chevrolet 30.582s + 0.795s Mike Bliss Humphrey Smith Toyota 30.689s + 0.902s