Aric Almirola leads Stewart-Haas Racing dominance of Atlanta Motor Speedway qualifying
The theme for the 2019 NASCAR weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway has been "I don't know," as a result of Sunday's Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 being the first race contested under some variation of NASCAR's new aerodynamic rules package. Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing, though, seemed to have the package figured out better than the competition, at least during Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying Friday evening.
Ford claimed the top-three spots on Sunday's starting grid, and four spots inside the top-five. The Ford camp was led by Aric Almirola, who claimed his second-career pole with a 30.550-second/181.473 mph lap in the third of three rounds of qualifying. That lap was the only lap of record over 181 mph through the three rounds.
“We knew our car had a lot of raw speed in it, and through the rounds, the adjustments that Johnny was making kept making our car a little bit better,” Almirola said. "I think we ran an 84, and then, we ran a 75 in round two, but we were getting it done on lap one. In the first round, there was a little bit of confusion leaving pit road. I feel like that might have cost us a little bit.
"Then, that final round, just was really good execution by the whole team. The changes that the engineers and Johnny made to the car. 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 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.”
Almirola will be joined on the front row by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. One of Almirola's SHR teammates, Clint Bowyer, qualified third after leading Friday's lone practice session and posting the fastest laps in each of the first two rounds of qualifying. Almirola was second to Bowyer in practice in practice and, again, in the first round of qualifying. In the second round of qualifying, though, SHR was one-two-three, with Daniel Suarez squeezing his way between Bowyer and Almirola on the speed chart. At the end of qualifying, Suarez wound up fifth on the race starting grid.
Denny Hamlin, last weekend's winner of the Daytona 500, was the only non-Ford driver to qualify in the top-five, putting his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota fourth on the grid. He'll have JGR teammate Kyle Busch behind them after Busch qualified sixth to share the third row with Suarez.
Kyle Larson was the highest-qualifying Chevrolet driver in seventh.
“I feel like we tried to learn as much as we could throughout practice of what we needed to do just to get momentum built up,” Larson said. ”Yeah, I feel like we ran about a similar lap time every round, there. I felt like that was all we kind of had in it. Yeah, I felt my balance was better in qualifying than it was practice, so that was good.”