Aric Almirola claimed his first pole in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Thursday night, with a qualifying lap of 27.988s (192.940mph) putting him just ahead of his Richard Petty Motorsports team mate Marcos Ambrose on the front row for the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest Sprint Cup Series race of the calendar.
“We struggled last week at Darlington, and we went with something totally different – we stepped off the island, and it paid off,” beamed Almirola. "A great day for Richard Petty and Richard Petty Motorsports. We're a two-car team trying to make it against bigger teams. It was a great night for us."
Almirola's time on the 1.5-mile oval Charlotte Motor Speedway was just 0.04s outside of the Cup record for the track, posted by Elliott Sadler in 2005. It is the sixth career pole for RPM as a team and the first of the season, and only the second time in the team's history that it has locked out the front row of a Cup race starting grid - the previous time being at Kansas in the autumn of 2010.
A car number strongly associated with Richard Petty as a driver, the last time the #43 started the Coca-Cola 600 from pole was in Petty's hands in 1966. The last time the #43 went to victory lane was with John Andretti at the wheel in April 1999. Not lacking any confidence now as an owner, Petty indicated the winner's podium and told the media, "We'll see you Sunday night."
Petty continued, “Even though it's just qualifying, it's still a big deal for us,” adding: "We've got bragging rights for a couple of days, anyway!"
Almirola was thrilled to have delivered on the #43's legacy so soon after joining the team, following AJ Allmendinger's off-season decision to leave the team - which came close to folding just 18 months previously - to join Penske.
"It's been a huge honour for me from day one to be able to come to this organisation," said Almirola. "Not just driving for Richard Petty Motorsports - I'm driving the 43 car, probably the most iconic car in the history of our sport."
Almirola's pole is also a triumph for his new crew chief Mike Ford, who has just signed up with the team after being let go by Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of last season after several years of running Denny Hamlin's #11 car, where he was displaced by Darian Grubb.
"I came in for a couple of weeks and observed, and these cars have got speed," said Ford. "It took me a couple weeks to just understand the approach of how to tune them ... 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."
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson will start from third place, and will be joined on the second row by Championship points leader Greg Biffle.
"Our qualifying effort this year has been improving week in and week out," said Johnson. "I can't express enough how important that is on pit road and late in the race. It just opens up so many options for you on two versus four tyres.
"I'm very proud of the effort today," he added. "I wish we were a little faster but those RPM guys seem to have a little chunk of speed on the field all day long," he said, pointing out that Ambrose had earlier set the top time in practice as well. "I'm happy for those guys, it's a smaller team that is working hard and I know it's a big day for them. I wish it was us, but we will come back and learn a little more Saturday and go racing.”
The drivers get Friday off but have two full practice sessions on Saturday, before the race itself on Sunday evening with the green flag scheduled for shortly after 5.30pm local time (10.30pm BST).
Danica Patrick, having opted to forego any one-off return to open wheel racing at this year's Indianapolis 500 held earlier on the same day, will start from 40th position after making the grid based on car owner points.
That's one row ahead of Kurt Busch, who was the biggest casualty of qualifying after hitting the wall in turn 2 and then rebounding into a hard nose-first hit on the inside wall on his qualifying run, meaning he will need to race the back-up car for the weekend.
"Sorry, guys," radioed Busch, who like Danica had to rely on car owner points to make the starting grid. Trevor Bayne was the highest-placed driver in 11th to qualify on speed alone. Missing out on a Sunday shift were David Reutimann, JJ Yeley, Mike Bliss and Scott Riggs.
Full qualifying and Thursday practice