Update: PhoenixSaturday, March 18, 2017
It didn’t seem to matter if was a practice session or qualification, four names kept popping up at the top of the leaderboard on Friday and Saturday. Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Ryan Blaney not only jumped to the top of the each chart, they have been the class of the field in race trim during the first three weeks. Fantasy players will benefit because these drivers are fairly well spaced in salary cap games.
Logano posted a lap of 137.321 mph in the final round of qualification and leads the field to green for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway. He posted the third-fastest lap in Friday’s practice session, was second-fast Saturday morning, and was fastest in Happy Hour. This may be his first time on the pole, but he already knows where Victory Lane is located after winning last fall.
Logano’s affiliate partner lines up on the outside of row one. This is Ryan Blaney’s best qualification ever in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. That should be viewed in a positive light given that his previous best of third was tied last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He raced with the leaders effortlessly in the Kobalt 400 and closed out the race with a top-10 finish. Blaney stayed at the top of the leaderboard most of the weekend, but slipped to 14th in final practice.
Chase Elliott topped the chart in the first and second practice sessions. He slipped just a little in qualification, but still lines up seventh on the grid. He has a near-perfect balance of speed and durability with the second-quickest, 10-lap average in Saturday morning’s session. The driver of the No. 24 has had a legitimate shot at winning the first three races. He could find this track a little more difficult to master, but should be able to keep his perfect record of Phoenix top-10s alive.
Kyle Larson was just behind Elliott most of the weekend. He had the second-fastest lap in practice one and was third in the second session. That margin will level out in the race because the No. 42 starts closer to the front on the outside of the second row.
Erik Jones was consistently the best rookie at Phoenix International Raceway. He out-qualified Ty Dillon by seven positions and lines up eighth on the grid. He also set the curve for the freshman class in each of the practice sessions. Jones enters the weekend with a two-race, top-15 streak and with a little luck he will be able to keep that alive. It will only take a minor mistake to lose track position on this one-mile oval, however, and that means all of the rookies come with some risk.
If not for his record, Kevin Harvick would probably be listed as a driver to avoid. He qualified only 23rd for the Camping World 500 and that is much further back than in any of his recent attempts. He does not need the security of starting near the front, because Harvick is not a particularly strong qualifier and he is accustomed to racing in heavy traffic early. He picked up the pace in Saturday morning’s session, but then dropped back to 16th in Happy Hour. He might struggle to win, but he should be able to keep his top-10 streak alive.
Martin Truex Jr. had the quickest 10-lap average in the morning session, but he was not happy with his car. He qualified 16th and it is going to take some very long runs to get him into a challenging position. He seems to be much happier on unrestricted, intermediate speedways, so he should be saved until Auto Club Speedway next week.
The veterans had a measure of revenge in Happy Hour. Kyle Busch posted the quickest 10-lap average at 134.094 mph. He was followed by Jimmie Johnson’s 133.687, and Matt Kenseth’s 133.663. They will need the long-run speed because Busch is the highest-qualified of the trio in ninth. Johnson lines up 14th with Kenseth one row ahead of him in 12th.