Speeds were lightning quick in practice and qualifying for Saturday‘s NASCAR Cup Series Bristol Night Race, but nobody was faster than Aric Almirola. That‘s a complete 180-degree turn from last week at Kansas Speedway, when the No. 10 car was the caboose, never making a qualifying run due to an engine issue. It‘s the first pole for Ford at Bristol Motor Speedway since the spring of 2012 when Greg Biffle accomplished the feat.
Dustin Albino‘s race-day lineup:
Starter 1: Kevin Harvick
Starter 2: Christopher Bell
Starter 3: Kyle Larson
Starter 4: Ryan Blaney
Starter 5: Denny Hamlin
Garage pick: Kyle Busch
NEXT IN LINE: Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, Joey Logano.
RISING: The string of non-playoff drivers rising to the occasion during the 2022 postseason continued on Friday, with Almirola taking the pole. He‘s not too shabby on concrete tracks, as he was strong last year at Nashville Superspeedway and multiple times at Dover Motor Speedway. He also has four top-10 finishes in 24 Bristol starts. On the long run, the No. 10 Ford also showed speed, ranking fifth on 10-lap averages.
Going into the weekend, I didn‘t expect a whole lot out of Briscoe. The No. 14 team has had a mediocre opening two races of the playoffs but is within striking distance of the bubble. Briscoe silenced the critics on Friday, running the quickest lap in the opening round of qualifying and will take the green flag from second. It will be interesting to see if that converts to long-run speed, as he sat 18th in the 10-lap average category.
FALLING: Daniel Suárez‘s struggles in the Next Gen car on short tracks continued Friday. The No. 99 Chevrolet has a best finish of 16th in three short-track races this year and will start the race from 29th. That‘s precisely where he was on the 10-lap average and sat 32nd on one-lap speed. His six points on the cutline could evaporate rapidly on Saturday evening.
For the third straight week, Chase Elliott had a poor qualifying. At Darlington Raceway, that got him in trouble early and last week the No. 9 Chevrolet was a non-factor, hardly reaching the top 10 throughout the race. At Bristol, one of his better tracks in recent years despite not yet winning, he will start 23rd. Now three qualifying sessions into the postseason, he has an average starting position of 22.6.
Bubba Wallace vs. Christopher Bell
Both drivers are playing with house money at Bristol, being the only two drivers that are locked into the postseason — Bell in the driver standings, Wallace in the owner standings for the No. 45 Toyota. “Thunder Valley” is one of Bell‘s favorite stops on the circuit, and he showed top-five speed throughout Friday. Don‘t be surprised if he earns his second victory of 2022.
Kevin Harvick vs. Kyle Busch
Many times in the past when either Harvick or Busch‘s backs have been against the wall, they‘ve prevailed. Harvick is in a must-win situation on Saturday and looked solid on Friday, ranking seventh in qualifying, which is tied for his best effort of the season. On the other hand, Busch spun in practice and will start 21st. While I fully expect an eight-time Bristol winner to be a contender by the end of 500 laps, Harvick is my choice.
Chase Briscoe vs. Austin Dillon
Going into the weekend, Dillon was my clear choice here. However, Briscoe had strong practice and qualifying sessions while the No. 3 Chevrolet was comparatively slow and will start 28th (was just 33rd in practice). Briscoe seems to be the easy choice.
Ross Chastain vs. Tyler Reddick
Justin Marks, Trackhouse Racing co-owner, called qualifying a “stinger.” Chastain will take the green flag in 12th, ahead of Reddick‘s 17th. But Chastain could have a few receipts coming his way from earlier season chaos — Bristol is a good track for drivers to give payback. Reddick is probably the smart choice.