Alain Menu produced a finely judged last lap effort to claim his second World Touring Car Championship pole of the season at Sonoma on Saturday.
The Swiss racer started his final qualifying lap in third place, but found over 0.3s on his previous best to take pole in his Chevrolet with a time of 1m45.236s.
"I was not too happy with my lap in Q1, and we changed the car a tiny bit," said Menu, who was only fourth after the first qualifying session.
"My first lap in Q2 was fastest but then the team radioed me on the in-lap to say [Gabriele] Tarquini had improved. My second lap in Q2 was really clean, and perhaps that was the key to this circuit, which has so many blind crests and dust."
Menu's improvement demoted Tarquini to second, and the Italian lost any chance of recovering his position when he ran off-track on his final lap.
"I destroyed my tires on my warm-up lap," said the Lukoil SEAT driver. "Watching the results from testing I thought perhaps this was a track for young drivers, but now in qualifying I think experience counts!"
Championship leader Yvan Muller was fastest in Q1, but could only manage third in the decisive second session. The Chevrolet driver admitted to underperforming in the second and third sectors. Trailing Muller by 17 points in the drivers' standings, the third factory Cruze of Rob Huff took fourth.
Hungaroring reversed-grid winner Norbert Michelisz was the top BMW runner in fifth for Zengo Motorsport. He also claimed pole in the independents' class.
Alex MacDowall, who was fastest in the Friday test, claimed a solid sixth ahead of the SUNRED SEAT of Tiago Monteiro. Briton MacDowall will start race two from pole after taking 10 in Q1.
Tarquini's Lukoil teammate Aleksei Dudukalo brought out the red flags in Q1 when he beached the front wheels of his Leon in a gulley at Turn 2. As a result of the incident, Dudukalo was unable to take his place in Q2.
Regular 2012 front-runner Tom Coronel had a day to forget, spinning off at Turn 2 and qualifying in the penultimate position.
Race one grid:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time Gap
1. Alain Menu Chevrolet 1m45.232s
2. Gabriele Tarquini Lukoil SEAT 1m45.468s + 0.236s
3. Yvan Muller Chevrolet 1m45.539s + 0.307s
4. Rob Huff Chevrolet 1m45.572s + 0.340s
5. Norbert Michelisz Zengo BMW 1m46.558s + 1.326s
6. Alex MacDowall Bamboo Chevrolet 1m46.578s + 1.346s
7. Tiago Monteiro SUNRED SEAT 1m46.594s + 1.362s
8. Franz Engstler Engstler BMW 1m46.761s + 1.529s
9. Mehdi Bennani Proteam BMW 1m47.004s + 1.772s
10. Stefano D'Aste Wiechers BMW 1m47.263s + 2.031s
11. Alberto Cerqui ROAL BMW 1m47.851s + 2.619s
12. Aleksei Dudukalo Lukoil SEAT No time
13. James Nash Arena Ford 1m47.000s Q1
14. Charles Ng Engstler BMW 1m47.050s Q1
15. Fernando Monje SUNRED SEAT 1m47.149s Q1
16. Darryl O'Young Special Tuning SEAT 1m47.167s Q1
17. Tom Chilton Arena Ford 1m47.380s Q1
18. Pepe Oriola Tuenti SEAT 1m47.434s Q1
19. Tom Boardman Special Tuning SEAT 1m47.436s Q1
20. Tom Coronel ROAL BMW 1m47.546s Q1
21. Robb Holland Bamboo Chevrolet 1m48.179s Q1
Race two grid:
Pos Driver Team/Car
1. Alex MacDowall Bamboo Chevrolet
2. Mehdi Bennani Proteam BMW
3. Franz Engstler Engstler BMW
4. Norbert Michelisz Zengo BMW
5. Stefano D'Aste Wiechers BMW
6. Tiago Monteiro SUNRED SEAT
7. Alain Menu Chevrolet
8. Gabriele Tarquini Lukoil SEAT
9. Rob Huff Chevrolet
10. Yvan Muller Chevrolet
11. Alberto Cerqui ROAL BMW
12. Aleksei Dudukalo Lukoil SEAT
13. James Nash Arena Ford
14. Charles Ng Engstler BMW
15. Fernando Monje SUNRED SEAT
16. Darryl O'Young Special Tuning SEAT
17. Tom Chilton Arena Ford
18. Pepe Oriola Tuenti SEAT
19. Tom Boardman Special Tuning SEAT
20. Tom Coronel ROAL BMW
21. Robb Holland Bamboo Chevrolet