Aric Almirola wins Atlanta pole with new Mustang, new rules package

Clint Bowyer was on the doorstep of securing his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole position since 2007, but teammate Aric Almirola and fellow Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had the last say.

Almirola powered his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the fastest lap of the day in the final round of Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Atlanta Motor Speedway, claiming the second Busch Pole Award of his career—and his first since winning the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 in 2012.

The 34-year-old driver from Tampa, Fla., will take the green flag from the top starting spot in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Almirola also earns the distinction as the first driver to put a Mustang on the pole for a Cup race, with Ford having introduced that model into the series this year. He’s also the first pole winner under NASCAR’s new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower 2019 Cup competition package.

“We knew our car had a lot of raw speed in it,” said Almirola, who covered the 1.54-mile distance in 30.55 seconds (181.473 mph) to beat Stenhouse (180.428 mph) for the top starting spot by .177 seconds. “Through the rounds, the adjustments that (crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) was making kept making our car a little bit better.

“Then that final round just was really good execution by the whole team… Honestly, the car that the guys brought, we were good right off the truck. We were second in practice and we carried that speed through qualifying. In that final round, we knew that a second lap was going to be faster than the first.

“That first lap, we kind of decided to throw that lap away and work on building the speed up. That second lap, I just really executed and hit all my marks perfectly and was able to be good enough and had a really fast lap to get the pole, which is really cool because I haven’t done it in like seven years. That was pretty neat.”

After leading the first two rounds, Bowyer was first to make an attempt in the money round, beating Austin Dillon in a drag race off pit road to start his final laps. Bowyer (180.410 mph) held the top starting spot until Almirola and Stenhouse surpassed him late in the session.

“I thought Austin would take off and go, and he was kind of lagging back,” Bowyer said of the start to the final round. “I knew it was a momentum deal, and I had to have as much as I could, and it still wasn’t enough.

“I do believe that we were the fastest car all day long, and they were going to have to do something and they formulated a good plan to beat us.”

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin qualified fourth at 180.328 mph in the fastest Toyota, followed by the Stewart-Haas entry of Daniel Suarez (180.216 mph). Kyle Busch was sixth, ahead of the Chip Ganassi racing Chevrolets of Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch in seventh and eighth, respectively.

Martin Truex Jr., Dillon, Jimmie Johnson and Michael McDowell completed the top 12.

Defending race winner Kevin Harvick qualified 18th despite a power steering problem that surfaced during the first lap of Friday’s opening practice and persisted throughout time trials.

Harvick couldn’t turn his No. 4 Ford to the right, meaning he couldn’t correct the car off the corners.

“Today has been a complete waste of time for us,” Harvick said. “The car won’t steer. It won’t turn to the right. We can’t figure out what is wrong with the steering to make it go straight.

“It has been a bit of a challenge today. We haven’t really made any laps that you can actually turn the car. We were kind of just hoping for the best there, and it didn’t fix any of it.”

Joey Logano will start 27th after his car slipped on his first attempt in the opening round.

“I think it’s just the rules package,” Logano said. “We’re still trying to learn and understand what’s going on here. I just got loose the first lap behind the 10 (Almirola), trying to find the right distance behind the car I wanted to be.

“I don’t know if I was the right distance or the handling was just off. We tightened it up the second time, but it didn’t give us any speed. We will start in the back and work our way up.”