El­liott, Blaney try to bring new faces to NASCAR fi­nale

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

Diggs (Mary­land) and the Vik­ings will face the Red­skins today.

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.

Chase El­liott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dil­lon 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 spot in next week’s cham­pi­onship de­cid­ing 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. TV: 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.


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