HAMPTON, Ga. – Stewart-Haas Racing ruled Busch Pole Qualifying on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it was Aric Almirola who got the last laugh.
After watching teammate Clint Bowyer sweep the first two knockout rounds, Almirola was fastest when it mattered. He turned a lap of 30.550 seconds (181.473 mph) with his No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang in the third and final round to garner his first pole in 234 races.
Almirola’s last top qualifying effort in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series prior to Friday was in 2012 with Richard Petty Motorsports, ahead of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway.
“I can finally say I have something on Bowyer!” Almirola joked to reporters after climbing from his car with his second-career Cup Series pole.
“The Ford Mustangs are really fast this weekend and it’s pretty cool to be the first guy to put a Mustang on the pole,” he added. “Everyone did a great job. We came here with a plan and executed right off the truck. We wanted to be nice to our tires, because we felt like we could go faster on our second lap. We knew there were some games being played at the end of pit road, as well, so we focused on getting clean laps and were able to be fast enough to get it done in one lap each of the first two rounds.
“I think that really paid off on our final run, there.”
Friday’s qualifying session marked the first time that the new Cup Series rules package, featuring aerodynamic changes meant to enhance passing on intermediate race tracks, was in full use on-track.
Notably, thanks to cool temperatures on Sunday evening, Almirola’s money lap was only half a second off the pole time of 30.024 seconds (184.652 mph) set by Kyle Busch one year ago at Atlanta under the old rules package.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. laid down an impressive time in the final round to give Ford a front-row sweep for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, touring the 1.54-mile quad-oval in 30.727 seconds (180.428 mph) with his No. 17 Little Hugs Fruit Barrels Mustang and earning the outside pole.
“I think the (cooler) weather definitely helped our car there,” said Stenhouse. “We made some big improvements on the first run, because we were 18th to start and jumped all the way up to sixth. Randy and Angela, our engineers, made a lot of adjustments to get us where I needed to be to be able to hold the car wide open.
“This is a good start for our Little Hugs Fruit Barrels Ford here at Atlanta, but it’s a bit of a bummer, too,” Stenhouse added. “I was trying to think what I could have done to get a little bit more out of the car, and then when I looked up Aric had run a 30.55. There wasn’t much I was going to be able to do to catch up to that.”
Bowyer, who was looking to become the seventh driver since the advent of knockout qualifying in 2014 to sweep all three rounds, ended up third in the final, five-minute session ahead of Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez.
Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson and Michael McDowell filled out the first six rows of the starting grid and all advanced to the final round of qualifying.
Johnson bumped Ryan Newman out of the top dozen in the final seconds of the second round, leaving Newman 13th on the grid for Sunday’s race and still tied with Buddy Baker for the most poles in track history at seven.
Other notables who were eliminated in the second round included the other three Hendrick Motorsports cars of Alex Bowman (16th), William Byron (17th) and Chase Elliott (22nd), as well as home-state favorite David Ragan.
The shock of qualifying, however, was defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano.
Logano’s No. 22 Ford Mustang didn’t even advance out of round one. He’ll start 27th on Sunday.
“We got loose down in the corner,” noted Logano. “I was trying to draft, thinking that was going to be the fastest way (around), but it was just tough. We made some adjustments to go back out, and then being by myself … we just didn’t pick up speed. I was going to run two, and out of habit I just shut it off.
“Typically, we only run one lap, but it seems like two laps has been good so far,” Logano added. “The car is handling now, which is good, because we’re going to have to pass some cars now on Sunday.”
To view complete qualifying results, advance to the next page.