Blaney wins pole in critical playoff race at Phoenix

Ryan Blaney stands next to his race car before practice for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway. (Ralph Freso/AP)

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Blaney probably needs to win at Phoenix Raceway to earn a shot at NASCAR’s championship.

He’ll at least start up front Sunday in his bid to put The Wood Brothers in the final four contenders next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Blaney won the pole in his final chance to qualify for NASCAR’s championship race with a lap at 137.942 mph around Phoenix in a Ford.

It gave Blaney the top starting spot for Sunday’s penultimate race of the playoffs. There is one slot available in the field of four that will race for the championship next week, and Blaney is one of five drivers chasing that spot.

"Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole. My mindset doesn’t change," Blaney said. "I still want to go try to win the race, so that’s the mindset we’ve had all week and hopefully we can keep that and I think that’s our goal."

Blaney bested Denny Hamlin in Friday qualifying. Both playoff drivers need to win to grab the final spot in the finale, and Hamlin waited until the third and final round to cut a corner on the track in an attempt to better his time.

Hamlin’s lap at 137.936 briefly put his Toyota on top of the leaderboard, but Blaney bumped him moments later.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have already locked up spots in the finale. Busch and Truex are in Toyotas, while Harvick drives a Ford. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott are the only two Chevrolet drivers with a shot to make the finale.

Kyle Larson, who has been eliminated from the playoffs, qualified third.

He was followed in qualifying by playoff drivers Elliott, Truex and Harvick.

With Elliott due to start right behind Hamlin, there was brief speculation that Elliott could seek revenge from an incident two weeks ago at Martinsville. Elliott was on his way to a victory that would have clinched his spot in the finale when Hamlin wrecked him out of the lead.

Hamlin said the two raced professionally last weekend at Texas and he had no concern for Sunday.

"Was I worried last weekend? No and I’m not worried this weekend," he said. "Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do and that’s to win. Our objective is the same objective as his — it’s to go out there and win on Sunday. You really can’t worry about other guys. If you’ve got that in front of you and you’re thinking about that, your chances of winning are slim to none."

Busch was eighth and Johnson qualified 12th, but felt his Chevy was far faster.

"We made it to the third round and I just got really aggressive in that round trying to run a flat," he 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."

Brad Keselowski was the lowest-qualifying playoff driver at 16th. He starts Sunday’s race with an advantage in the point standings over the other four drivers trying to make it into the championship, but he has very little breathing room and a victory is his only sure bet to make the finale.

But, Keselowski found solace in the speed that teammate Blaney showed, and is hopeful he’s got something for Sunday.

"It’s not where we want to start, but when the track gets hot and slick we seem to run better here," Keselowski said. "My teammate Blaney is real fast, so I know we’re all real similar and we’ll have a little confidence in that."