Youth move­ment mak­ing strides quickly in play­offs

Ryan Blaney, Chase El­liott still alive for one berth in fi­nale.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer To­day’s Games

AVONDALE,ARIZ.— There’s no deny­ing the rapid chang­ing of the guard in NASCAR, and this year’s play­offs proved how quickly the young new driv­ers can make their way in this sport.

Ryan Blaney, Austin Dil­lon, Chase El­liott, and Kyle Lar­son claimed four of the 16 play­off po­si­tions — a glimpse of the fu­ture of NASCAR.

Blaney and El­liott are the only two driv­ers still in the play­offs, and the two are among five driv­ers rac­ing to­day at Phoenix Race­way for one berth in next week’s cham­pi­onship de­cid­ing Cup fi­nale. Blaney will start from the pole and El­liott will start fourth.

Their com­pe­ti­tion? Seven-time and de­fend­ing NASCAR cham­pion Jim­mie John­son, 2012 cham­pion Brad Ke­selowski and Denny Ham­lin, prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful ac­tive driver with­out a ti­tle.

A win to­day by any of the five earns them an au­to­matic berth into the fi­nale at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way. Al­ready qual­i­fied for the ti­tle race are 2015 cham­pion Kyle Busch, 2014 cham­pion Kevin Har­vick and Martin Truex Jr., the most dom­i­nant driver this sea­son. Blaney is ready to roll. “I don’t re­ally feel a lot of pres­sure in any sit­u­a­tion,” he said af­ter win­ning the pole. He also noted that by points, he’s not cur­rently el­i­gi­ble for the fourth spot. Should none of the con­tenders win at Phoenix, the fi­nal spot at Homestead will go to the high­est-ranked driver, and that is cur­rently Ke­selowski.

“We’re re­ally not un­der any pres­sure right now. We’re out,” Blaney said. “If we were in right now, if we were like in a spot where we could get bumped out, that would be pres­sure. We re­ally don’t have much to lose just be­cause we’re not in a po­si­tion to where we’re al­ready locked in.

“I just think we’re up for the chal­lenge. I think this team rises to those oc­ca­sions and that’s what I like.”

El­liott likened his sit­u­a­tion to the clos­ing laps of the Day­tona 500, when he ran out of gas while lead­ing. Op­por­tu­ni­ties come and go, and he’s learn­ing that he’s got to grab them when he has the chance. He’d been elim­i­nated from the play­offs be­fore this round last year, so El­liott em­braced that he’s still got a shot.

“This is my sec­ond time in the play­offs, we are still a part of it right now and that is more than I could say a year ago,” said El­liott. “I have learned a lot and I have learned that I don’t want to miss out on those op­por­tu­ni­ties mov­ing for­ward. I am ob­vi­ously go­ing to try to do ev­ery­thing that I can if you ever have the chances down the road.”

Ke­selowski has been over­shad­owed by team­mate Blaney this sea­son, while El­liott has been the best of the Hendrick Mo­tor­sports driv­ers and has eas­ily out­per­formed team­mate John­son through these play­offs. Even Har­vick has had a very quiet sea­son. Satur­day’s games

Sen­a­tors 4, Avalanche 3: Mike Hoff­man scored two goals to help Ot­tawa beat Colorado and sweep their two reg­u­larsea­son games in Swe­den (the Sen­a­tors won 4-3 in over­time Fri­day). Mark Stone and Johnny Oduya also scored Satur­day for Ot­tawa, which trailed 3-2 af­ter two pe­ri­ods. De­fense­man Erik Karls­son had two as­sists, giv­ing the cap­tain 17 points in 11 games this sea­son. Oduya, a Stock­holm na­tive, drove a slap shot by Jonathan Bernier at 7:01 of the third, ty­ing it at 3 and de­light­ing the crowd of more than 13,000. Hoff­man got the win­ning goal on a one-timer on a power play with 6:37 left. Alexan­der Ker­foot and Sven An­drighetto each had a goal and an as­sist for the Avalanche, who have dropped three in a row.

(At) Rangers 4, Oilers 2: New York used two sec­ond­pe­riod power-play goals for its sea­son-high sixth straight win. Rick Nash scored twice, Mats Zuc­carello picked up two as­sists, and Pavel Buch­nevich had a goal for the Rangers. Hen­rik Lundqvist made 26 saves, Kevin Shat­tenkirk tal­lied a point in his seventh straight con­test, and Ryan McDon­agh had an as­sist in his fourth con­sec­u­tive game. Jesse Pulju­jarvi and Con­nor McDavid each scored as the Oilers fell to the Rangers for the fourth con­sec­u­tive time. Sabres at Canadiens: Late Maple Leafs at Bru­ins: Late Blue Jackets at Red Wings: Late Wild at Fly­ers: Late Black­hawks at Hur­ri­canes: Late Panthers at Devils: Late Is­landers at Blues: Late Penguins at Predators: Late Jets at Coyotes: Late Canucks at Sharks: Late

RALPH FRESO /AP

Ryan Blaney will start from the pole in to­day’s CanAm 500, the last race to qual­ify for next week­end’s ti­tle race at Homestead­Mi­ami.

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