Aric Almirola, Marcos Ambrose sweep 600 front row for Richard Petty Motorsports
By REID SPENCER
CONCORD, N.C. (NASCAR) - The No. 43 is back on the pole at Charlotte Motor Speedway -- without a Petty behind the wheel.
In a car owned by three-time Charlotte Motor Speedway pole winner Richard Petty, Aric Almirola blew the doors off his competition in Thursday night's time trials for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, touring the 1.5-mile track in 27.988 seconds (192.940 mph).
The near-track-record speed (just .04 seconds off Elliott Sadler's 2005 mark) gave Almirola the first Coors Light pole award of his career and allowed him to surpass Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose (191.598 mph), whose No. 9 Ford was fastest in practice, for the top starting spot.
Fresh from his victory in last Saturday's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at CMS, Jimmie Johnson qualified third at 191.374 mph, followed by Cup points leader Greg Biffle (191.259 mph) and Clint Bowyer (191.198 mph). Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard and Regan Smith will start from positions six through 10, respectively.
In late 2010, RPM was a moribund team, wilting under the majority ownership of George Gillett. But Petty partnered with investors Andy Murstein and Doug Bergeron to save the organization from extinction.
Almirola joined Ambrose on the team to start the 2012 season. On Thursday night, he registered the 122nd pole for the 43 car. Petty himself accounted for 114 of those 122.
"It's been a huge honor for me from day one to be able to come to this organization," Almirola said. "I'm not just driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. I'm driving the 43 car, probably the most iconic car in the history of our sport.
"For him (Petty) to allow me to do that, for him to ask me to do that, it's just really special, and it's a big honor to put that 43 car back on top of the board. To see it over there in Victory Lane and get our picture taken and all that stuff is really cool. I know it's only qualifying -- we want to be able to do that after the race -- but it's a start."
Almirola's pole reflects the influence of crew chief Mike Ford, who joined the No. 43 Ford team before the May 6 race at Talladega.
"I've got short time working with these cars," said Ford, who was crew chief for Denny Hamlin's second-place run in the Cup series in 2010 but was replaced by Darian Grubb after the 2011 season. "I came in for a couple of weeks and observed, and these cars have got speed. They've got a lot of speed to 'em.
"It took me a couple weeks to just understand the approach of how to tune them. Last year all the Fords ran good at Charlotte, and we came back with that type setup (last week) for the Open (Sprint Showdown) and kind of embarrassed ourselves, running seventh.
"We went back to work and regrouped and made a cut at something and focused on race trim -- we really didn't focus on qualifying. We know that we've got the balance right, and the car's got speed and Aric's comfortable driving it, so he can go get the speed."
The No. 43 hasn't been to Victory Lane since John Andretti won for Petty Enterprises at Martinsville on April 18, 1999. That stat failed to stem the confidence of the car owner.
"We'll see you Sunday night," Petty said, indicating the dais where the winner's press conference takes place.
Misfortune continued to dog Kurt Busch's Sprint Cup effort. The driver of the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet spun on his first qualifying lap, nicking the outside wall with the right rear of the car before slamming nose-first into the inside barrier.
"Sorry, guys," Busch radioed to his crew as he drove the wounded car to the garage. Busch posted no time but is guaranteed a starting spot in the race because of the car's top-35 standing in owner points.
Like Busch, Danica Patrick will make use of an owner points provisional after posting the 43rd-fastest time among 47 drivers. Patrick will start 40th, Busch 42nd.
Mike Bliss, former 600 winner David Reutimann, JJ Yeley and Scott Riggs failed to qualify for the 43-car field.
Updated May 24, 2012