Michael McDowell leads Ford‘s front-row lockout at Atlanta with first pole

Michael McDowell and Joey Logano performed their own version of “Trading Places” during NASCAR Cup Series time trials on Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After finishing second to Logano in qualifying for the season-opening DAYTONA 500, McDowell will start his 467th Cup race from a position he has never occupied before—first on the grid—with Logano beside him in second.

Having won the first Busch Light Pole Award of his career, McDowell will lead the field to green in Sunday‘s Ambetter Health 400 at the 1.54-mile track (3 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

All told, seven Fords and three Chevrolets comprised the top 10 in the qualifying session.

The only driver to break the 31-second mark, McDowell posted a time of 30.999 seconds (178.844 mph) in the final round of time trials, beating second-place Logano (178.424 mph) by 0.073 seconds.

Kyle Busch (178.235 mph) earned the third starting position, with Todd Gilliland, McDowell‘s teammate at Front Row Motorsports, claiming the fourth spot at 178.080 mph.

“That‘s awesome,” McDowell said after topping the session. “Two weeks in a row we sat on the front row. We need to back that up with a good result (on Sunday). We‘ve got both cars in the top five, so that‘s awesome.”

Kyle Larson, defending series champion Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon will start the Ambetter Health 400 from fifth through 10th, respectively.

For the second straight race, no Toyotas advanced to the top 10 in qualifying, though Martin Truex‘s 12th-place effort on Saturday was an improvement from Daytona, where Erik Jones was the fastest Camry driver in time trials at 22nd.

DAYTONA 500 winner William Byron missed the final round by 0.002 seconds (behind Hendrick teammate Larson) and will start 11th on Sunday.

At Atlanta, access to pit road under green is a complicated, tricky procedure

At most NASCAR race tracks, speeding on pit road draws a penalty that can be overcome with speed or ingenuity.

At Atlanta Motor Speedway, however, speeding under a green flag can be the equivalent to a death penalty, as far as a driver‘s chances of winning the race are concerned.

The approach to a driver‘s pit stall at Atlanta involves two distinct sections, 1) an access road through Turns 3 and 4, constituting pit road sections 1 and 2, with a 90-mph speed limit under green, and 2) pit road sections 3 through 18, from the yellow entrance line to the yellow exit line.

The speed limit in Sections 3 through 18 is 45 mph. Under caution the 45-mph limit applies to all sections.

Because of the long approach, speeding under green-flag conditions will cost a driver two laps and likely ruin the race.

But the process of maintaining pit road speed adds a layer of complication. Since the NASCAR Cup Series cars don‘t have speedometers, typically that means more warning lights and/or additional pages on the digital dashboard.

“You‘re not getting down to 45 mph… you‘re getting down to 90 mph, so the gearing is a lot different,” said DAYTONA 500 champion William Byron, who has won two of the last four Atlanta races. “The lights are built way differently. I think we chose to go with third gear this time (in the 90-mph section). Last time, we were in fourth.

“So, I feel like just trying to understand the cadence there. My engineers sent me a bunch of stuff, some layouts to make sure I‘m aware of what lights I need to run. But the biggest thing is don‘t speed, because under green, that section is not that important in comparison to being a couple of laps down here. If you go a couple of laps down with how long that pit road is now, your race is ruined. So, you just have to not speed.”

Though drivers enter pit road at Turn 3, the process starts at the exit of Turn 2.

“The 90-mile-an-hour pit road speed is almost twice as fast as anywhere that we have,” said Christopher Bell. “So, we‘re racing in fifth (gear). It‘ll be a third-gear pit road speed whenever you hit the line, and you have to be mindful of not speeding, because if you speed, you‘re going to lose multiple laps.

“So, it‘s third-gear pit road, and then there will be another downshift when you approach Turn 4 to get down to 45. It‘s very unique and very tricky and not one you want to play games with, for sure.”

Kyle Busch is one of the most accomplished drivers at getting on and off pit road. At Atlanta, there are a lot more variables than usual.

“We‘ll likely have two pages (on the dashboard) — one for under green and one for under yellow that we‘ll use for different lights and what we‘ll look for in the gearing, RPM ranges and whatnot,” Busch said. “If you‘re under green and you‘re coming off of Turn 2, you have to make sure you‘re on page two — whatever page it is — and then you‘ll slow down as quickly as you can, as late as you can, in order to make it to the 90-mph speed zone by the first line.

“Carry that around the corner and then you‘ll slow down through your lights and then run your pit road lights. There are different colors (of lights) — you‘ve got three different sets of colors that you can go through, so there‘s a pretty wide range. You‘ll probably run all reds… actually you‘ll run probably four blues through the corner, and then you‘ll run all reds on pit road. That‘s typically what we do.”

John Hunter Nemechek relishes his time in a race car on Saturdays

Returning to full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition with Legacy Motor Club this season, John Hunter Nemechek nevertheless wants to maintain a presence in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, even though the race cars in the respective series drive quite differently.

Racing an Xfinity Series Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing last season, Nemechek won seven races and finished fourth in the final standings. He‘s slated to run 10 Xfinity races this season with Gibbs as Legacy acclimates to the Toyota Camry after racing Chevrolets in the Cup Series last year.

“Why not? I like to race,” Nemechek said on Saturday morning at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I like to be in race cars, and I think getting more laps is more beneficial for myself. Being able to work with the same group of guys at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) that are on the 20 car—besides two positions, I think, everyone is still the same.

“It‘s big for me to come back this year and have fun and try to go win races, not really knowing what the Cup side has in store for the first few (races) as far as speed and other things. For myself, I wanted to put myself in a situation where I can gain confidence on Saturday and go into Sunday and be able to go out there and strive, learn some things from Saturday to try to apply to Sunday.

“I‘m a race car driver. If we could run all three series every weekend, I‘d be raising my hand to be into that.”

–NASCAR Wire Service–

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