AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — 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 Sunday 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 Sunday 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."
If Blaney and Elliott fail to advance to the championship, it will be a victory for the old guard in NASCAR. The three already in at Homestead are longtime Cup veterans, which is no longer the best thing to be in NASCAR. As older drivers are being moved around for young, new faces, many have also gone overlooked.
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. Hamlin has a prolific role with the drivers council, but his performance hasn't been anything of headlines this year.
The class of the field has been Truex, and when he wasn't dominating, usually Larson was. If not for an engine failure in the second round of the playoffs, Larson would likely still be eligible and racing for a spot at Homestead. Now it's up to Elliott or Blaney to represent this new class of young drivers and try to earn the last golden ticket.
For Elliott, it would mean a Chevrolet will race for the championship. The field already includes two Toyotas (Truex, Busch) and one Ford (Harvick).
So, he's got a laser focus on his goals for Sunday.
"For us, it's pretty simple, you either win or we are not a part of the four next week," Elliott said. "The points calculations this week are really irrelevant to us. It sounds simple, just a matter of going to do it."
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