Benefitting from an early draw and aided by cloud cover that burned off as Saturday's qualifying session progressed, Juan Pablo Montoya was the surprise winner of the pole for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Montoya turned a lap at the 2.5-mile triangular track in 51.124 seconds (176.043 mph) and waited as the fastest cars from Friday's first practice session failed to unseat him from the top spot. The Coors Light pole award was the Colombian driver's first of the season, his first at Pocono and the eighth of his career.
Early qualifiers also filled the second and third spots, with Denny Hamlin (175.795 mph) claiming the second starting spot and Paul Menard (175.627 mph) the third. Menard posted his lap in a backup car, after his primary car was wrecked beyond repair during Friday's practice.
Kasey Kahne (175.439 mph) will start fourth in the 21st NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season, followed by Marcos Ambrose (175.432 mph) and Kurt Busch (175.339 mph).
Montoya was the 16th driver to make a qualifying attempt. Menard and Hamlin followed before the sun began to heat the track in earnest. But Montoya was happy for any good fortune during a season that has produced just two top-10s in 20 races for the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet.
"To be honest with you, I'm not sure if I'm more shocked that we're on the pole right now -- with how the last few races have been for us and how our season's been -- or that we're on the pole at Pocono," Montoya said. "This is a place where I normally struggle in qualifying.
"This is a big boost for everybody on the Target team. We really needed a little bit of light. We know we've been working in the right direction. We know we've been working hard, and we feel that the cars are getting a little better, but to actually get out there and get a pole . . .
"I just went through the hauler, and all the engineers are happy, laughing. I've seen a lot of long faces and a lot of stressful faces -- we really needed something like this as a company."
Montoya's early draw was calculated. He deliberately did not post a fast speed in Friday's first practice, during which the qualifying order is set, slowest first to fastest last. The team looked at the weather forecast and determined to take an early draw if rain wasn't likely.
"It's the right call," Montoya said. "Do we have the fastest car out there? No. but qualifying is the same as racing -- you've just got to make the right call and do whatever it takes to get it done, and that's what we did."
Notes: Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified eighth, one position behind Matt Kenseth, who is second in the standings . . . Stephen Leicht failed to make the 43-car field.