(Photo credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Stewart-Haas Racing's Aric Almirola claimed the pole position for Sunday's YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a fast lap of 181.656 mph in the No. 10 SHR Ford.
The 39-year-old Tampa native bettered the speed of fellow Ford driver and reigning NASCARCup Series champion Joey Logano by .004-thousandths of a second on Saturday afternoon.
Almirola's SHR teammate Chase Briscoe was third fastest and will start on the second row alongside Hendrick Motorsports' Kyle Larson, the top-qualifier among the 12 NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers.
"You know these races come down to pit stops really, track position at the end, and so having a good pit stall, a clean-in and clean-out, stuff like that, that all matters," said Almirola, who won this fall race on the 2.66-mile Talladega high banks in 2018 and gets first pit selection with this pole-winning effort Saturday, his sixth career pole.
"I'm just really proud of all the guys on this 10 team. We've been working so hard to put speed in these Smithfield Ford Mustangs, and (engine builder) Doug Yates obviously brings a ton of horsepower when we come to these type race tracks.
"It's not a secret. This has been a tough year for us," Almirola said as the four-car SHR organization is still racing for its first win of the season.
"So to show that kind of grit and resolve with everyone continuing to grind and work and bring fast race cars to the race track, that says a lot about our race team. Just really proud. The driver has a small part to do with it at these places, but a lot of it is just the speed built into the cars."
Five of the 12 playoff drivers advanced to second-round qualifying on Saturday. Brad Keselowski, whose six wins at Talladega are most in the field, qualified fifth in his Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford. Hendrick Motorsports' William Byron, who has already punched his ticket into the Round of 8 with a victory last week at Texas Motor Speedway, will start eighth. 23XI Racing's Bubba Wallace and Team Penske's Ryan Blaney round out the top 10 on Sunday's starting grid.
Several other playoff drivers were just off that pace. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who leads the points standings, will roll off 12th. 23XI Racing's Tyler Reddick was 13th-fastest in final qualifying, with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr. 15th and 16th, respectively.
Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing's Chris Buescher will start 24th, with Richard Childress Racing's Kyle Busch lining up his Chevrolet 25th. Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain -- who finished runner-up at Texas last week -- rounds out the current playoff dozen and will start 32nd.
Among those drivers who advanced to final qualifying and not competing in the playoff 12, NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Riley Herbst turned in an impressive result, qualifying a Rick Ware Racing car sixth -- his best start in four NASCAR Cup Series races. Blaney's Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric -- the 2021 Daytona 500 winner -- was seventh fastest.
Going into this second race of the three-race round of playoff competition, Hamlin holds a 22-point edge to ninth-place Wallace, who sits only two points behind Larson. Reddick is 10th, three points behind Larson followed by Blaney (-11) and Busch (-17).
"I think (starting position) definitely helps for the first stage, and hopefully we can get some stage points, but outside of the first stage, I don't think it really matters a ton," said Larson, who is competing for his first Talladega victory.
"I feel happy we made the final round, but we'll see. I think it should be good."
BUSY WEEK FOR KYLE BUSCH
Kyle Busch suffered a disappointing DNF last week in the opening race of the 2023 NASCAR playoffs' second round, the two-time series champion finds himself in last place among the 12 playoff drivers vying to advance to the Round of 8 following Sunday's Talladega race and next week's event at the Charlotte ROVAL.
Beyond his time behind the wheel, Busch announced major news this week in his job as a longtime NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team owner. He has sold his two-time championship Kyle Busch Motorsports team to Spire Motorsports. And although he will still compete in five races for the organization in 2024, Busch conceded Saturday at Talladega that the move was "obviously a super bittersweet moment," thanking all the people who contributed to the company's success.
Busch acknowledged he's got some work to do at Talladega to regain the momentum he had earlier this season when he earned three victories in his first year driving the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet -- the most wins he's had since 2019. He's a two-time Talladega winner, including this spring.
"I think you come in here stress-meter pegged, regardless of whether you're 30 (points) to the good or 30 behind," Busch said. "We obviously know in our situation we're further behind. So you have to race. I think it's been more sought out to just race these races and run normal and not to hang out in the back and try to wait for something to happen. Because with these cars and the way the race plays out, it's so hard to make moves and make passes and get track position whenever you want it. You can't.
"So you have to hold it when you got it and if you don't have it, then you have to figure out how to fuel save so that you can short-pit guys and jump 'em on pit road. There's so many variables, you have to just race it out and don't worry about it. Whatever happens, happens."
BUBBA MAKING THE MOST OF HIS PLAYOFF DEBUT
Bubba Wallace has certainly been making the most of his NASCAR Cup Series playoff debut, advancing to the second round -- leading the most laps and finishing third in the opening race of this round last week at Texas.
He enters Sunday's YellaWood 500 ranked ninth in the standings, only a slight two points below the transfer line for the Round of 8. And Talladega is the site of his first ever NASCAR Cup Series victory in 2021.
Interestingly, Wallace said that although he's grateful and motivated to be in the 2023 playoffs, he feels like his No. 23 23XI Racing team should have been there last year, too.
"We were capable of doing this last year," Wallace said. "We have the right people, just going to have to put it all together. It has been a lot of work to get to this point, for sure. It's super cool to see the results pay off for everybody on this team. I could see my guys fired up about showing up for this race, and we still have our name in the hat. We are progressing forward.
"We were the last seed to start the playoffs and the last seed coming into this round and we advanced. And we are now two points out of advancing again. It's cool for them. I'm pumped for them, and I'm seeing them work extra hard to make sure we are doing everything right -- that's what motivates me."
CHASTAIN CHAMPIONSHIP ROAD
Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain smiled and conceded his 2023 season has been "up, down, left and right" following a breakout year in 2022 when he advanced to the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Finale for the first time in his career. He ultimately finished as the runner-up to Joey Logano for the big trophy.
Last season, the 30-year-old Floridian earned his first two wins in the series -- at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) road course and then on the Talladega Superspeedway big track -- and a career best 15 top 5 finishes and 21 top 10 showings leading a career best 692 laps.
This season, he earned his first career pole position -- at Nashville -- and turned it into his only victory so far. He's ranked sixth in the playoff standings with a 12-point cushion above the eighth-place cutoff position. Eight drivers advance to the penultimate stage of the playoffs following next week's race at the Charlotte ROVAL.
Chastain has a pair of top-10 finishes in the opening four playoff races, with a best showing of runner-up just last week at Texas and insisting he had "no preconceived expectations." Asked this week if he was concerned about his playoff hopes, Chastain looked calm.
"Not really. We just go race. That's what we do," Chastain said. "They give out the same amount of points in every stage and every race in every one of these rounds. If we finish the race and run up front we get more points, if not, we know we get less.
"We just go race, and that's what's so great about what our sport offers right now and what these playoffs offer. They give us a chance after three races. They give you a chance and then after three races if you make it, they give you another chance and no matter how it went, as long as you beat four guys. We'll go see how many points we can scrape up."
--By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.