BRISTOL, Tenn. – Amid the intensity of an elimination weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it was non-playoff driver Aric Almirola who played spoiler during qualifying for the Bass Pro Shops Night Race on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Almirola turned a lap of 14.946 seconds (128.382 mph) around the .533-mile concrete high banks with his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang, capturing the fourth Busch Light Pole Award of his Cup Series career and his first since Nashville Superspeedway last June.
“This is good; now we just have to keep tuning on it,” Almirola said of his race car after capturing the pole. “I felt like we had a really good car in practice. We ran 55 laps straight and I felt really good about it; then when we swapped over to (qualifying) trim, it was just as good.
“I was really bummed out because we missed the playoffs, but to come out and perform like this … have a lot of speed, I’m really excited to see what we can do Saturday night,” he added. “To run a 15-second lap around Bristol, wow. There’s no margin for error and we put up a good lap. I’m so proud of my team; this has been a great start to the weekend for us.”
Almirola will be joined on the front row for Saturday’s Round of 16 cut race by teammate Chase Briscoe (14.968/128.193), as SHR Fords locked out the top two starting spots. Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman qualified third in a Chevrolet, with Denny Hamlin ending as the fastest Toyota driver in the second and final round in fourth.
Defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson will start fifth Saturday night, followed by Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell and Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric.
A surprising effort by RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski saw the 2012 Cup Series titlist make the final round of qualifying. He’ll start 10th.
Among those playoff drivers eliminated in round one were Ross Chastain (12th), Joey Logano (15th), William Byron (16th), Tyler Reddick (17th), Kyle Busch (21st), Chase Elliott (23rd) and Austin Dillon (28th).
Daniel Suarez will roll off 29th for the 500-lap Bristol Night Race, worst among the 16 playoff contenders.
Bell is the only driver mathematically assured of a spot in the Round of 12.
The Bass Pro Shops Night Race is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. ET green flag Saturday night, with live coverage on USA Network, the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.