Column By REID SPENCER / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – The NASCAR Cup Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, so it should come as no surprise that Aric Almirola would lead an armada of Ford drivers in time trials for the Quaker State 400 (7 p.m. ET on USA, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Almirola claimed the fifth Busch Light Pole Award of his career with a lap at 177.346 mph (31.261 seconds), running the fastest lap of the day in the final round of time trials.
Almirola edged Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney (177.266 mph) by .035 seconds for the top starting spot in Sunday’s race, as Ford drivers claimed the first six positions on the grid. In March, Ford’s grabbed the top eight starting spots.
The pole was Almirola’s first of the season and his second at the 1.54-mile track.
When Almirola won his first Atlanta pole in 2019, he was driving a Gen 6 car with an open-motor configuration on a degraded asphalt surface. Saturday’s pole-winning run came on a repaved track with NASCAR’s Next Gen car using a superspeedway competition package.
Nevertheless, Almirola said the lap was equally nerve-wracking, as opposed to the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways.
“Here, with the track starting to degrade some over the winter, and now we’re in the hot summer months of July in Atlanta, the car’s a handful to try to run wide-open… A lot more nerve-wracking, much like it was with the Gen 6 car when you’re absolutely flying around here, slipping and sliding on that old surface.
“It was an exciting lap—we’ve been working really hard to bring more speed to the race track, and it’s great to get a pole.”
Chase Briscoe, Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, will start third after a lap at 177.147 mph, followed by Joey Logano (176.876 mph).
Harrison Burton qualified a career-best fifth and will start on the inside of the third row next to Kevin Harvick. Toyota driver Ty Gibbs interrupted the Ford monopoly and will start seventh next to Kyle Larson, the only Chevrolet driver to make the final round.
Reigning series champion Logano won the March race at Atlanta for his only victory so far this season.
Joey Logano’s Win at Atlanta looms large as Ford drivers seek speed
Relatively speaking, the 2023 season has been slim pickings for Ford drivers. Joey Logano won at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the fifth race of the season, and Ryan Blaney picked up an intermediate speedway victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
That’s the sum total of wins for the Ford camp—compared with 11 for Chevrolet and five for Toyota.
Accordingly, Logano’s victory at Atlanta in March has been magnified as he tries to sweep this year’s Atlanta events.
“You assume the win is big, and it gets you in the Playoffs and all that, but you fast forward however many races it’s been since we’ve been here, and it’s bigger than what we thought it would be,” Logano said. “Unfortunately, you hope it’s not.
“You wish it was the other way around, but we’re 10th in points right now, and we’d have been probably in a decent spot to make the Playoffs I’m sure still, but it’s a lot more comfortable when you have a win and you know that you’re in the Playoffs and you can focus in on some other things and trying to grow your team and get smarter and all those things.
“We’re not where we need to be, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of hard work going on right now to try to close the gap, and we keep hustling and trying and swinging the bat and doing everything we possibly can do. There are only so many things you can do, but work in the areas we’re allowed to and keep trying to find something.”
Now in different camps, the Busch brothers don’t see as much of each other
Kurt Busch’s 2022 season didn’t end the way he expected or wanted it to. Busch hasn’t raced since sustaining a concussion during a wreck in qualifying at Pocono Raceway last July.
But Busch transitioned into a competition role at 23XI Racing, and he and brother Kyle Busch saw a lot of each other while Kyle was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, given that both JGR and 23XI are Toyota teams.
The dynamic has changed since Kyle moved to Richard Childress Racing, which fields Chevrolets. The brothers—both NASCAR Cup Series champions—aren’t as closely aligned, though Kyle did induct Kurt into the West Coast Stock Car Motorsports Hall of Fame in June.
“Yeah, I got to work with him on the sidelines last year being with the Toyota camp for the last half of the year, but really haven’t seen a whole bunch of him and haven’t talked a whole bunch with him – just not working with that group anymore,” Kyle said on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
“Being with Team Chevy, we’ve kind of I guess re-distanced a little bit. But you know, it was not due to what he wanted as a timeline of stepping aside and being out of the car. But the way it all went down, the way he’s handled it, the way he’s still been a part of 23XII and working with Tyler (Reddick) and Bubba (Wallace) over there – I think he’s an instrumental part to some of the success they’ve had early on.
“We’ll see what his choices are going forward on if he continues that.”