Denny Hamlin has been on the outside looking in as Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and defending Cup series champion Martin Truex Jr. have dominated the season.
The "Big 3" have won 16 of 21 races while Hamlin is winless, but he took a step toward changing his luck by winning the pole for Sunday's race at Watkins Glen International.
Hamlin traversed the 2.45-mile layout at 125.534 mph on Saturday to take the top spot in the No. 11 Toyota, just ahead of Busch. It's Hamlin's 27th career pole in Cup.
"It's way too soon for that," Hamlin, who won at The Glen two years ago, said when asked if his effort was a step toward closing the gap with the three drivers at the top. "We've got to really get the train back on the tracks, so to speak, start running in the top five more consistently like we were doing early in the year.
"It's been a tough two months, but you just work harder," Hamlin added. "It's made me work harder. It's going to be a process. It's definitely not going to happen overnight. Hopefully, in the next month we get things figured out so we can at least be contenders when it gets down to these cutoff races."
Hamlin is mired in ninth in the standings, nearly 300 points behind Busch, and has been consistently running just outside the top 10.
Chase Elliott, who topped the first round of qualifying, will start third in the No. 9 Chevy, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.
Joey Logano, who won the Xfinity race moments earlier, qualified sixth, followed by Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger, Erik Jones, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Blaney and Michael McDowell.
Truex and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson fought to get back in the top 12 at the end of the opening round after dropping out. Truex climbed to fourth, dropping Johnson to 13th and out of the running for the 10-minute second round.
Kevin Harvick, tied with Busch for the series lead with six wins, also failed to advance and will start 16th.