Almirola takes first pole at Coca-Cola 600
CONCORD — It's been awhile, but Richard Petty has bragging rights once again in Charlotte.
Aric Almirola took the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 with a lap of 192.940 mph Thursday night and teammate Marcus Ambrose finished second at 191.598, giving Petty a front-row sweep at Charlotte Motor Speedway for NASCAR's longest race.
"Hey ya'll," Petty said to reporters as he walked into press conference and took a spot behind the table in the front of the interview room. "Haven't sat up here in a while."
Petty won a Sprint Cup-record 123 poles during his career.
But his No. 43 car hasn't sat on the pole at the Coca-Cola 600 in 46 years.
"This really makes me feel good because our guys have been working hard for a long time and they finally got a little recognition," Petty said. "It shows what these guys have been doing is right. Tonight the circumstances were right. It's a confidence builder for us, even though it's just qualifying. We have bragging rights for a couple of days here anyway, so that makes all of us feel good."
Almirola, gearing up for his first series race at Charlotte, got his first pole by taking advantage of cooler track conditions late in qualifying.
Jimmie Johnson, who won last week's All-Star race, qualified third, followed by Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. Mark Martin will start sixth and Kasey Kahne seventh, followed by Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard and Regan Smith.
Kurt Busch will start at the back of the field after wrecking in qualifying.
Danica Patrick qualified 43rd for her first Coca-Cola 600.
Almirola said he was "honored" to give Petty Motorsports the pole in Charlotte in a race Petty considers the second-biggest on the NASCAR circuit behind only the Daytona 500.
"It's been a huge honor for me from day one to come to this organization, not just to drive at Richard Petty Motorsports but to drive the No. 43 car, probably the most iconic car in the history of our sport," Almirola said. "For him to allow me to do that is really special. It's a huge honor to be able to put that No. 43 car back on top of the board. I know it's qualifying and we want to be able to do this after the race, but it's a start."
The No. 43 car has won 122 poles, 114 of those by driven by Petty himself.
Almirola credited new crew chief Mike Ford, who joined the team for the Talladega race, for making changes to the car that worked.
"He was like, 'I'm going to step off the island this week. It may or may not work but we didn't run good enough last week for it to matter,'" Almirola said. "So we came back this week with something totally different and it's paid off. It's really a fast car."
Said Ford: "We've got the balance right and we've got speed."
After qualifying Petty stood next to Almirola in victory lane and asked the youngster if he scared himself running so fast in qualifying.
"I told him, 'Well no, when they drive good they're not really that scary,'" Almirola said.
Ambrose turned the fastest lap in practice, but couldn't beat out his teammate for the pole.
But that didn't seem to bother him at all.
"We're a two-car team here trying to take it to the big super teams," Ambrose said. "It's a great night for us. We'll take a front row. If you're going to get beat by anyone I guess you want to be beaten by your teammate. It's a proud day for us."