Friday’s Food City 500 qualifying session ended with as loud an ovation as can be expected from the smattering of fans in the gargantuan stadium, as Chase Elliott bested Ryan Blaney‘s fast lap from practice to win his fifth career Cup Series pole. Elliott will start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron on Sunday. That last season’s most popular driver scored the pole win was likely a relief for the team at Bristol Motor Speedway and NASCAR alike, as the second round of qualifying was punctuated by boos after the top 24 cars waited at the end of pit road for nearly half the session before starting to take laps.
The reaction was such that Kyle Larson, who was the first driver to take a competitive lap in the second round, received an ovation nearly as loud as Elliott received for winning the pole just for taking to the track:
Larson failed to advance in round two and will start 16th, but his run was far better than that of teammate Kurt Busch, who qualified 27th with what he briefly described as a loose race car. Briefly, because upon entering the media center bullpen after his run, Busch stated “I was loose, I didn’t get a good lap. Not much I can help you with” before storming out of the media center. 27th marks the worst Bristol starting spot for the six-time Thunder Valley winner since 2012.
Blaney, who topped the practice chart and broke the track record in topping the charts in the second round of Friday’s qualifying, told the team after finishing his final laps that his No. 12 Ford was strong enough to win the pole, but that a driver error in Turns 3 and 4 proved costly. Blaney will start third as one of five Fords starting in the top 10.
The PJ1 compound on the lower side of the track did appear to be racier than during Cup practice after two Xfinity Series practices and K&N East Series practice put three more hours of activity on the racing surface, with the majority of the Cup cars that took time in all three sessions running the low line through all four turns. Austin Dillon, who qualified 15th, vocally advocated for NASCAR to put another layer of the compound down prior to Sunday’s 500-lap race, noting that the compound tends to allow for better side-by-side racing at the facility.
There were no yellow flags during any of the three qualifying rounds. The most notable incident on track occurred in the second round, where David Ragan appeared to obstruct Kyle Busch on one of his hot laps. Regan apologized to Busch in passing at the media center entrance after both drivers failed to advance to round 3, with no reaction to indicate this would be a lingering issue.
36 of the 37 cars that took time during practice on Friday made a qualifying lap. Ross Chastain did not take a lap in the No. 15 car.