AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ryan Blaney got what he needed in Friday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series knockout qualifying session — but only by a thousandth of a second.
In the final round, Blaney covered the 1-mile distance at Phoenix Raceway in 26.098 seconds (137.942 mph) to edge Denny Hamlin (137.936 mph) by .001 for the top starting spot in Sunday’s Can-Am 500, the final race in the Playoff’s Round of 8 (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET).
With the Playoff field set to be trimmed from eight drivers to four after the race at Phoenix, both Blaney and Hamlin are below the cut line. A victory for either driver would guarantee the final spot in the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The same is true for Chase Elliott, whose only realistic shot at the final four is to win on Sunday. Elliott qualified fourth at 137.641 mph, one position behind Kyle Larson (137.926 mph), who fell .003 seconds short of matching the pole-winning speed.
“We got better each round, which is all you can ask for, really,” said Blaney, who won his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season, the second of his career and his first at Phoenix. “I thought the last round was our best. We ran our fastest time, and it was enough. That says something strong about this team.
“I think we started second here in the spring, and to back that up and better it at a big weekend like this, where we have to perform well, that’s definitely encouraging, and it gets our weekend started off on a good foot. Hopefully, we can keep this momentum up and keep it going and see what we have for them on Sunday.”
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Brad Keselowski, fourth in the standings and 19 points ahead of Hamlin in fifth, was the only playoff driver who failed to advance to the third round of time trials. Keselowski qualified 16th in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford, putting him in a disadvantaged position for accumulating points in the race’s first two stages.
“It’s a short race, and if there’s a track to qualify well, this is one of them,” Keselowski said. “It’s not where we want to start, but when the track gets hot and slick, we seem to run better here than when it cools off at night.
“I don’t know, maybe that’s my style. I’m not sure, but we’ll go race and see what we’ve got.”
Keselowski’s lackluster qualifying effort won’t change Hamlin’s approach to the race.
“It doesn’t alter it much,” said Hamlin, who cut the backstretch dogleg in the final round in an attempt to shorten the distance. “I didn’t think they were going to qualify that great, but they typically race pretty well here.
“I’m not going to count on anything – not until we get to the end of the first stage and I see where we’re at. I’m confident that starting right there, we should probably be up front all day.”
Elliott trails Keselowski by 49 points entering the final event in the Round of 8. Unlike Blaney and Hamlin, who could make the Championship 4 on points if Keselowski fades, Elliott is in a win-or-bust situation.
Getting the fourth pick of pit stalls should help.
“If we get our car driving good (in Saturday’s practice), it’s plenty good enough,” Elliott said of his qualifying run. “So we’ll see. It would have been nice to have that first pit box, but I think taking fourth, there are four good ones on pit road. We’ll take advantage of that and try to go get ‘em on Sunday.”
Twelfth-place qualifier Jimmie Johnson is in the same position as Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. If the seven-time champion hopes to preserve a shot at an eighth title this year, he’ll have to win on Sunday.
“We made it to the third round, and I just got really aggressive in that round trying to run a flat (26 seconds),” Johnson said. “Just got in the corner too hard on both ends and I kind of pushed up.
“So, could have been better, but I don’t know if we could have had the pole. I think we would have only been about fifth or sixth if I had got it right.”