The track would get faster, they all said. One driver after another left the 1.5-mile oval at Lowe's Motor Speedway Thursday night insisting that as track temperatures continued to drop, so too would qualifying times.
Four dozen drivers went out after early leader Ryan Newman. The sun disappeared and the track cooled, but Newman's No. 12 Dodge remained at the top of the qualifying list for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.
Finally, when the last driver of the night went out for his two qualifying laps, the conventional wisdom proved correct.
Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet had been the fastest car in the daytime practice; it was also the fastest car in nighttime qualifying. The defending champion was the first driver ever to top 187 mph at Lowe's qualifying, finishing with a speed of 187.052 to earn his first pole of the season.
"When I saw where we were going to go out and qualify, it didn't hurt my feelings a bit," Johnson said with a smile. "The way I got through [turns] one and two, I knew the car was really hooked up."
Newman's speed of 186.948 mph had broken his own track record. He qualified second, a week after finishing second on the same track at the Nextel All-Star Challenge. Jeff Gordon (186.922) was third in a Chevrolet, also bettering Newman's previous mark.
Newman claimed the pole here last May, when Johnson went on to win a weather-shortened Coca-Cola 600. But Newman clearly wanted the pole Thursday night, and virtually everyone involved pointed to Johnson's late start as a determining factor.
"It's just the luck of the draw, it's how our sport works," said Gordon, who went out more than an hour before Johnson. "Sometimes you draw the right one and sometimes you don't. I wish there was a way to make it a little bit more fair."
As a hot, sunny day dissolved into a comfortable evening, shade enveloped the oval. The track temperature on the final two turns plunged from 119 degrees to 100 to 94, and the grip increased.
Which is why Newman, the fourth to take the track, knew his time was less than secure. Although he called his record-setting run "pretty close to a perfect lap," he immediately predicted that the weather would come into play.
"Wait and see; can't do anything after that," he said. "I knew we were hurting from a time perspective with our draw."
Johnson, upon seeing Newman's time, was less convinced.
"It's amazing the roller coaster that you take in your confidence," Johnson said. "When I saw our pick, my confidence skyrocketed. When I watched Ryan bust off that lap, it kind of plateaued."
But when he heard "screaming and yelling" in his headset after his first lap, he called it a night, not bothering to run his second.
Newman had claimed two straight poles at this racetrack, but he was bested by one of the hottest drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit. Johnson enters the weekend second in the standings, with four consecutive top-five finishes.
He has won just one race this season -- the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in mid-March -- which crew chief Chad Knaus attributed to a NASCAR scoring system that rewards top-10 finishes over risk-taking.
After flirting with entering both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday -- an idea that was quashed by his sponsors -- Tony Stewart qualified sixth. Robby Gordon, who plans to complete the double for the second consecutive year, qualified 20th with a speed of 184.231.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the last points race at Richmond two weeks ago, qualified 10th at 185.312. The Nextel Cup points leader will start in the top 10 for the sixth consecutive race.