HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) — Aric Almirola gave the new Mustang its first pole of the NASCAR season in Ford sweep of NASCAR Cup qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Almirola turned a lap at 181.472 mph Friday to take the top qualifying spot and deny Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer a slot on the front row. Bowyer was fastest in the lone practice session of the day but slipped to third, behind Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
"It's cool to be the first guy to put the Ford Mustang on the pole," Almirola said. "It's like my first one in seven years, too."
The pole is the second of Almirola's career, but first since 2012 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600.
Ford was the heavy favorite to win last week's Daytona 500 but was locked out of even a podium finish as Toyotas took all three of the spots. Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, and led two of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates across the finish line for the sweep, and was the highest-qualifying Toyota driver at Atlanta in fourth.
Daniel Suarez, another SHR driver, qualified fifth in a strong day for that camp. Only Kevin Harvick, the defending race winner, struggled but his issue was a steering problem that hampered his team all afternoon. He qualified 18th.
"Everybody at SHR is building incredible race cars, it doesn't matter what rules they throw at us," Almirola said. "You give 400 really talented employees a challenge with a new race car, with a Ford Mustang, and a new rules package from NASCAR and they just go to work. They put their head down and go to work and figure out how to make everything work to make the cars go fast."
Kevin Harvick, the defending race winner, was the only SHR driver not to advance to the final round of qualifying. He struggled with a steering problem all afternoon and qualified 18th, unsure of what to expect of a competition package that will be introduced in Sunday's race. NASCAR has overhauled the rules package this season to slow the cars, bunch them together and create a more competitive on-track product, but because it is untested, Sunday is a mystery for most of the field.
"Today has been a complete waste of time for us. 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," Harvick said. "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."
Kyle Larson was the highest Chevrolet driver at seventh.
It was a rough qualifying session for Team Penske, which advance Brad Keselowski to the second round of qualifying but saw Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney eliminated in the first round.
Keselowski was fastest from Fords other flagship team with a 19th-place qualifying effort.
"We just weren't fast enough," Keselowski said. "I think it is definitely different but I don't think this whole rules change was made for qualifying, I think it was made for the race. We will have to get to the race and see what it looks like there and let the smart people that know everything figure it out from there."
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