AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ahead of a race in which he needs to count every point possible to advance to the Championship 4, Ryan Blaney set himself up for success by capturing the pole at Phoenix Raceway on Friday evening.
Blaney saved his speed for when it counted most, posting the fastest lap of the final round at 26.098 seconds (137.942 mph) in his No. 21 SKF/Quick Lane Ford to capture his second pole of the season and first at Phoenix.
The pole was also significant for Blaney’s manufacturer, as it was the 650th time that a Ford has topped qualifying in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Now, Blaney hopes he can use the prime starting spot and pit selection to either win his way into the final round of the playoffs during Sunday’s Can-Am 500 (2:30 p.m., NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), or leap-frog Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin for the final available berth on points.
Either way, he knows that his pole effort puts him in a good position to do so.
“That was a good run for us,” said Blaney. “We got better each round. I didn’t think it was going to be enough, honestly. I didn’t think I got the best lap … and I tried to get more on my second lap and messed up, but what we had ended up being enough.”
“We started second here in the spring race, so it’s nice to come back here and sit on the pole this time around. It’s pretty cool to sit on the pole at a short track; I never thought I’d be doing that.”
Hamlin, who is also chasing a spot in the Championship 4, nearly edged Blaney for the pole but fell a thousandth of a second short (26.099/137.936) and will start second in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.
Even his trump card wasn’t quite enough, as Hamlin cut the dogleg off turn two but just missed the pole.
“Regardless of how close it was (for the pole), this is a great run for our FedEx Camry,” Hamlin said. “I think I was a little bit shy there and just didn’t get through (turns) one and two quite as good as what I needed to, but overall … a great day for us with as much time as we spent trying to tune on race trim.”
“You don’t want to show your hand too soon. I knew there was time to be made there (by cutting the corner). The net gain maybe isn’t as much because of the bad angle (you take) into turn three, but I think it made the lap a little better for us.”
The Chevrolet pair of Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will line up on row two, qualifying third and fourth, followed by Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota in fifth.
Of note, just .003 of a second separated Blaney, Hamlin and Larson during the final round.
Texas winner Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Martinsville winner Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson filled out the first six rows and completed the list of drivers who advanced through all three knockout rounds.
Jamie McMurray was the first driver below the cut line in round two and will start 13th (26.308/136.841), but the biggest surprise was Brad Keselowski, who was the only one of the eight playoff drivers who didn’t make it to round three.
Keselowski will roll from 16th in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
“It’s a short race on Sunday. If there’s a track you want to qualify well at, this is one of them,” admitted Keselowski. “This isn’t where we wanted to start, but when the track gets hot and slick, we seem to run better than when it cools off at night. We’ll go race and see what we’ve got.”
“My teammate (Ryan) Blaney is really fast, and all of our cars are pretty similar, so we’ll have confidence in that and go from there.”
Trevor Bayne was the first driver knocked out in round one, timing in 25th-fastest with a lap of 26.542 seconds (135.634 mph) in the No. 6 Ford EcoBoost Ford.
Other notables eliminated in the first 20 minutes were former playoff driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (27th), Ty Dillon (29th) and Chris Buescher (31st).
Full qualifying results can be viewed on the next page…