Saturday, May 26, 2018
Sports

Tampa's Aric Almirola wins first Sprint Cup pole, gets top spot for Coca-Cola 600

CONCORD, N.C. — It has been a long time, but Richard Petty has bragging rights once again in Charlotte.

Tampa's Aric Almirola took the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 with a lap of 192.940 mph Thursday. Teammate Marcus Ambrose finished second at 191.598, giving Petty a front-row sweep at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"Hey ya'll," Petty said to reporters as he walked into a news conference. "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. And it hasn't won since John Andretti at Martinsville on April 18, 1999.

"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. It's a confidence-builder for us, even though it's just qualifying. We have bragging rights for a couple of days here anyway."

Almirola, 28, gearing up for his first Sprint Cup race at Charlotte, got his first pole in the series by taking advantage of cool track conditions late.

Jimmie Johnson, who won last week's All-Star race, qualified third followed by points leader Greg Biffle.

Kurt Busch will start at the back of the field after wrecking. "Sorry, guys," he radioed to his crew as he drove toward the garage.

Almirola said he was "honored" to give Petty Motorsports the pole for a race Petty considers the second biggest in NASCAR behind only the Daytona 500.

"It's been a huge honor … 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. "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 by Petty.

Almirola credited new crew chief Mike Ford, who joined the team for the Talladega race earlier this month, for making changes to the car that finished 19th in the last points race.

"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 … for it to matter,' " Almirola said. "So we came back this week with something totally different."

Said Ford: "We've got the balance right, and we've got speed."

Ambrose turned the fastest lap in practice but couldn't beat out his teammate for the pole. It didn't seem to bother him.

"We're a two-car team here trying to take it to the big super teams," Ambrose said. "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."

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