Concord, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - Jimmie Johnson will start on the pole for the first time this season after winning Thursday night's qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion, made a lap around this 1.5-mile racetrack at 194.911 mph, which was the fastest lap during this three-round knockout qualifying session. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet earned his 33rd career pole in the series, including his fourth at Charlotte.
"We knew we had a great race car today, so it was nice to get out there and work our way through the three segments here and get it done," Johnson said. "On the first run, we missed it a little bit, but [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] knew exactly how to dial me in for the second one. We got a lot closer, and for the third segment, laid down a good lap."
Brad Keselowski held the provisional pole with his lap at 194.567 mph until Johnson topped it with less than two minutes to go in the final round. Keselowski, the 2012 series titleholder, will start on the front row in a Sprint Cup race for the seventh time this season.
"We were pretty miserable to begin with, but my guys [No. 2 Team Penske Ford team] kept working on it, and somehow we ended up second," Keselowski said. "I'm really not sure how. The first round we ended up 24th, right on the bubble, and the second round we were seventh and almost got knocked out. In the third round, we seemed to find a little bit more, but not quite enough and ended up second."
Johnson has won a points-paying race at Charlotte six times, but hasn't scored a victory here since October 2009. Three of his wins at this track occurred in the Coca-Cola 600 -- NASCAR's longest race of the season. He won them consecutively from 2003-05.
"Qualifying days usually aren't are best, but when we qualify well we know that we're going to race well, so I'm very optimistic," Johnson said.
Johnson, currently seventh in the point standings, has yet to win a race this season.
His teammate, Kasey Kahne, qualified third, while Danica Patrick took the fourth spot. Clint Bowyer was fifth.
Patrick had her best qualifying finish of the season and the second-best of her Sprint Cup career. She won the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500. Patrick posted the fastest lap in round 2 of qualifying at 194.595 mph.
"The car was really good," Patrick said. "I think the big difference that came for me was in the second round. [Crew chief] Tony Gibson made really good adjustments and anticipated the offset from run one to run two really well. We have a lot to be proud of. Let's face it, this is the part of the weekend that I dreaded every time. I had to train myself to not say I hate qualifying."
Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were sixth through 10th, respectively, in qualifying.
Kevin Harvick, who won this race one year ago, and Matt Kenseth did not get on track in time to post a lap during the final five-minute round. Harvick will start 11th and Kenseth 12th.
Jamie McMurray, who won last weekend's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, qualified 26th, one spot ahead of Jeff Gordon, the current points leader and winner of the most recent points-paying race -- May 10 at Kansas.
Kurt Busch qualified 28th, as he will attempt to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and this race at Charlotte on the same day. Busch will start 12th in the Indy 500.
J.J. Yeley and Dave Blaney failed to qualify.
There is no track activity at Charlotte on Friday. Sprint Cup teams will have two more practice sessions on Saturday (one in the morning and the other in the afternoon). Sunday's 600-mile race is scheduled to start shortly after 6 p.m. ET.