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The former NASCAR champion is much smarter these days, although he has plenty of talented colleagues right behind. Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader, has won three times at Darlington and brother Kyle won this event in 2008. Also among the top 10 starters are past champions Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and seven-time winner Gordon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 16th fastest, while Danica Patrick had to go to a backup car after hitting the wall in practice and will start 40th for Saturday night’s race.

Kyle Busch joked with Johnson after qualifying that the five-time series champions’ second-place finish meant the Busch brothers’ mother _ drivers’ moms typically accompany them during pre-race introductions _ would have to walk across the stage twice instead with her boys on each arm.

“She’s happy I finished second,” Johnson jabbed with a smile.

Kurt Busch hopes he’s got a smile on his face Saturday night in Victory Lane. He says his Furniture Row team is feeling good, knowing how it won here two years back.

“They’ve just come in here with a lot of confidence,” he said.