It was an unusual twist for the top two contenders, as Johnson is typically the better qualifier and Keselowski has struggled in that area through the first eight races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
But when the qualifying session was over, Keselowski had locked down the 14th starting spot for Sunday’s race, while Johnson was in 24th. It’s the lowest qualifying position for Johnson in a Chase race since the 2010 opener at New Hampshire, and his worst this season since the August Bristol race.
“Wasn’t so good, but we’ve been fighting a little bit in qualifying trim,” Johnson said. “But, we’ve got a great baseline race setup to go off.”
Johnson struggled with the sun glare in the first turn.
“The glare was pretty bad getting into the turn, then getting the power down was tough for me up off of two,” he said. “Three and four were pretty good, I felt like on both of my laps, but I struggled oddly enough down there this time.”
Johnson moved into the points lead with his win at Martinsville two weeks ago, and widened the margin to seven points with a second-straight victory last week at Texas.
But Keselowski is eager to reclaim the top spot he held down for five weeks of the Chase, and knows how to get it back.
“I’m running to win, whatever that means,” he said. “Win the race and things become a lot easier. You don’t have to worry about those things.”
Neither championship contender was near the front of the field, where Kyle Busch set a track in winning the pole.
Busch ran a lap of 138.766 mph to earn the top starting spot, breaking the mark of 137.279 set by Carl Edwards in 2011.
It was a big improvement for Busch from a year ago, when he came into the race in crisis. He had to fight to keep his job after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race at Texas a week earlier, which led NASCAR to park him for the rest of the weekend, qualified poorly and finished 34th.
“It’s kind of cool because here a year ago we qualified 36th _ dead last on speed _ and then this year we’re fastest, top of the sheets,” Busch said. “It’s really good for all of us. I’m just proud of the effort.”