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Almirola a surprise at top

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Thursday, May. 24, 2012
More information Top Five Qualifiers 1. Aric Almirola192.94 2. Marcos Ambrose191.598 3. Jimmie Johnson191.374 4. Greg Biffle191.259 5. Clint Bowyer191.198

Hail to the King.

“The King” of NASCAR, Richard Petty, will take another turn in the spotlight at Charlotte Motor Speedway, this time as an owner.

RPM first-year driver Aric Almirola earned his first pole in the Sprint Cup Series and will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

Almirola will be joined on the front row by teammate Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose was the last of 47 cars to qualify, but his qualifying speed of 191.598 mph fell just short of Almirola (192.940 mph).

Sunday will mark the first time since 1966 the iconic No. 43 car has lead the field to the green flag in the 600.

The No. 43 hasn’t visited Victory Lane since John Andretti won in the Petty Enterprises Pontiac on April 18, 1999, at Martinsville, Va.,

“This is really awesome to get my first pole right here in Charlotte,” said Almirola, whose first pole came in his 47th career Cup start. “It’s been a huge honor for me from day one to be able to come to this organization. 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 No. 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.”

No one was prouder of what Almirola and Ambrose accomplished on Thursday night than Petty.

“It really makes me feel good that our guys have been working hard for a long time and they finally got a little bit of recognition,” Petty said.

“Even though it’s just qualifying, it’s still a big deal for us. We’ve got bragging rights for a couple of days here, so that makes us all feel good.”

Both Almirola and Ambrose were fast in Thursday’s lone practice session, with Ambrose fastest in the 90-minute session.

He hoped to be the one to get the pole, but still pleased he and his teammate claimed the front row.

“What a great day for Richard Petty and Richard Petty Motorsports. My car was hooked up but just not quite enough. Proud day for us and I’m really looking forward to the 600,” Ambrose said.

“Nothing would make me happier to make The King smile in Victory Lane. He should feel good about what happened here today.”

Jimmie Johnson continued his strong string of performances of late, qualifying third. Series points leader Greg Biffle will start fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth.

“We have a great race car,” said Johnson, who won the Sprint All-Star Race last Saturday night. “The cars have been very fast and it’s been a really great couple of weeks for us.

“We hope to keep things rolling.”

Danica Patrick, making her third Cup start and first at Charlotte, was 43rd fastest of 47 cars and will line up 40th on Sunday.

“I was really loose getting up to speed and loose on the first timed lap,” Patrick said. “I don’t know if maybe my line wasn’t perfect for those conditions or what I needed to do or what.

“Good news is we’re in the 600, we just have to regroup and go out there and do a good job on Sunday night.”

Kurt Busch wrecked his car during his qualifying lap and failed to post a speed. He will start 42nd and drop another stop to the rear after moving to a backup car.

Mike Bliss, David Reutimann, J.J. Yeley and Scott Riggs all failed to make the 43-car field.


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