HAMPTON, Ga. – With the debut of a new aerodynamic package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series came several surprises during Friday’s Busch Pole Qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Perhaps chief among the impressive time trial runs on a cold evening at the 1.54-mile quad-oval was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s outside-pole effort for Roush Fenway Racing.
Stenhouse improved in each of the three knockout rounds, rising from 18th on his first run to sixth in his second time out before clocking the second-fastest lap of the pole round – a 30.727-second clip at 180.428 mph – with his No. 17 Little Hugs Fruit Barrels Ford Mustang.
While Stenhouse was thrilled with his team’s effort, he was left wishing they could have found that extra little bit to give him the pole over Almirola after climbing from his car at the end of the final round.
“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.”
Stenhouse may have easily carried a big smile after qualifying, but that didn’t mean he expected to run all the way up to second on the scoring pylon in the final round.
“I was pleasantly surprised with this,” Stenhouse noted, with a smile as he did so. “I figured we could make the top 12, but I’m really happy to have P2 out of it. We had a solid Speedweeks and hopefully this is an extension of that early speed.”
Another solid effort came from the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team, which saw Daniel Suarez qualify fifth-fastest in just his second race win the organization.
Suarez posted a time of 30.763 seconds (180.216 mph) with the No. 41 ARRIS Ford in the final round, seeing his early beliefs proved correct that his car would have decent single-lap pace in it.
“Honestly, I thought we’d be somewhere in the top 10,” Suarez said. “Then, after the second round, I knew we had a shot (at the pole). I don’t feel like we had anything more than that, but it was good.
“Our Mustang was very good. We didn’t touch the car all three rounds and the balance was solid,” Suarez added. “I think the temperatures being cold helped a lot. Hopefully tomorrow the sun will come out a little bit more so that we can get a handle on some issues and try to fix them. In all, the Arris Ford Mustang was pretty strong. I feel like we had a top-five car all day long and that’s where we ended up.”
Then there was Michael McDowell, who put together a yeoman’s effort for Front Row Motorsports and put the team in the final round of qualifying at an intermediate track for the first time in team history.
McDowell, who was fourth-quick at the end of round two, ended up 12th on his last run and will roll off from the outside of row six in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
“It’s a new year, new package and a new start for Bob Jenkins and all of us at Front Row Motorsports,” McDowell told SPEED SPORT. “This is something we’ve really been looking forward to. I’m thankful that everyone worked so hard during the offseason with our expansion to three cars to continue building fast cars and bringing them to the race track each week.
“It’s already awesome. This is a solid effort for us,” McDowell added. “For me, I knew we had good speed at the end of practice and I really felt like we’d be close to that top 12. I didn’t think we’d quite have top five speed there for a little bit, so that was really cool, but I figured we’d contend well.”
In any event, Friday’s rundown was proof that the new Cup Series aerodynamic package is already opening the order up to some new contenders, at least through its opening day of action.
The real test will come on Sunday, when the surprise performers try to stay up front for 500 miles.