Before Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had already had a strong 2012 season. He broke his long winless drought in June at Michigan and entered the Chase cutoff race second in the Sprint Cup standings. The only thing NASCAR's most popular driver hadn't done, pretty much, was win a pole.
You can cross that goal off the list.
Earnhardt Jr. toured the Richmond International Raceway in 21.26 seconds to grab the pole for Saturday's Federated Auto Parts 400. It is Earnhardt's 11th-career pole and his first since last year's Daytona 500.
Teammate Jeff Gordon, seeking to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup title with a win or at least a strong performance coupled with a poor one from Kyle Busch, will roll off second. Regan Smith, Clint Bowyer, and Jimmie Johnson complete the top-five.
Mark Martin will start sixth, followed by Denny Hamlin (seeking his third-consecutive victory), Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski.
Among the drivers seeking the 12th and final spot in the Chase, Gordon obviously led the way with his runner-up performance, followed by Logano in eighth. Ryan Newman was 14th, one spot ahead of Kyle Busch. Busch currently holds the edge thanks to his April win at RIR, but Gordon will take over the top spot unofficially once the green-flag drops. Marcos Ambrose will start 22nd.
Carl Edwards, winless through 25 races, will start 16th. Edwards needs a Hail Mary if he is to have any shot to try to win the championship that slipped away a year ago, with only a victory plus poor performances by both Busch and Gordon remaining his only chance to make the playoff.