AVONDALE, AZ — Sometimes the best is saved for last. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday evening from the Phoenix Raceway, the site of NASCAR’s Championship Weekend. Chase Elliott was the 24th qualifier of the session and turned in a speed of 136.939 mph in his No. 9 Chevrolet. 13 straight drivers tried to best that time including three other Championship 4 drivers.
That surprised him.
Then came two more qualifiers to close it out. Kyle Larson. Michael McDowell. Larson, on his final lap, bested Elliott with a speed of 137.847 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet good enough for his 10th Busch Pole Award in 259 career starts. When we’ve qualified this year, outside of Daytona which was set by the Duels and Bristol by heat races, he was second at COTA, first at Charlotte, fifth in Nashville, second at Road America, fourth at Indy and now the pole.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Larson said on translating over his pole into this race chances on Sunday.
Elliott has equally been as good and equally as confident but even with the speed on Saturday, he didn’t expect to qualify as good as he did.
“No, I really didn’t think it would be second, to be honest with you,” Elliott said. “I didn’t feel like I did a great job. Then obviously the longer you go there, it isn’t a bad thing. Just in general I didn’t think I hit my lap super good. I was really surprised it was even second.”
He said the main thing that you could take away from Saturday in qualifying was the sense that you get a better pit stall. The other is that the speed is obviously there.
“Look, our preparation’s done,” he said. “We have put what we feel is going to give us the best result into our race car for tomorrow. We have prepared all week. I’ve prepared all week. As ready as I’m ever going to be. I think our team is, too. We’re just ready to get the day rolling and do what we all came here to Phoenix to go do. I feel like we’re very capable of doing that. I’m just ready to get going. We came to Arizona to run 300 some-odd laps, so let’s roll.”
This will be Elliott’s 11th top 10 start in 12 Phoenix races.
Hendrick Motorsports locked out the top three spots with William Byron qualifying third in his No. 24 Chevrolet while Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five in qualifying.
Denny Hamlin (6th) and Martin Truex Jr. (12th) give us all four Championship 4 drivers in the top 6 Rows.
Who’s Ahead Heading Into The Race?
Hendrick Motorsports has outperformed Joe Gibbs Racing so far this weekend in Phoenix. That’s been eye opening in the sense that we expected it to be the other way around. See, JGR has had the premiere speed on the 750 short tracks in comparison to HMS during the 2021 season.
Then, HMS turned up the wick last weekend in Martinsville but Phoenix was looming and this has been JGR’s playground as of late. They’ve won four of the last six including this past spring with Martin Truex Jr. So far this weekend, its been Hendrick dominated.
Larson and Elliott were second and fifth respectively in practice on Friday and then will share the front row for Sunday’s race. Does JGR feel like they’re behind now?
“Today we’re behind,” Truex Jr. said. “Yeah, I don’t know that that guarantees tomorrow we’ll be behind, to answer your question.”
Hamlin says that they are behind but, “not because of the way we qualified, no. We’re going to go race, see what happens. We’ll see. Obviously the race is always a lot different than practice or qualifying. Yeah, I mean, got a decent spot. We still have to go race.”
Last year, Chase Elliott showed up here without any practice and qualifying and won. He did so while coming from the back due to inspection failures.
“Look, our preparation’s done,” Elliott said. “We have put what we feel is going to give us the best result into our race car for tomorrow. We have prepared all week. I’ve prepared all week. As ready as I’m ever going to be. I think our team is, too. We’re just ready to get the day rolling and do what we all came here to Phoenix to go do.”
Larson feels like his long run speed isn’t where it needs to be yet but it’s not a reason to change anything to his No. 5 Chevrolet due to the conditions being different Sunday than it was on a green track on Friday.
“I was unhappy where I ranked and stuff in speed on longer runs,” he said. “I also them I don’t really think we should change anything because the track’s going to be way different come Sunday.
“Yeah, I think it’s nice. I was thinking about it. It’s nice having the experience of not practicing. Now that we have practice, you realize how it’s so easy to get yourself — make more mistakes in practice adjusting on your car than anything.
“Yeah, that was more it. So I don’t know what changes they made, if they made any at all. Yeah, I was just more frustrated that I didn’t feel good. In practice you’re running so hard, you’re so focused on a lap time rather than feel I guess for me.”
As far as having the best starting spot and clean air at the start now between he and Elliott, is that an advantage too over the JGR duo?
“I mean, it definitely helps,” he notes. “This package, the dirty air is not quite as bad as what we’ve ran on intermediates and here in the past with the big spoilers, low horsepower.
“If their car is driving good, they’ll be able to find their way to the front. Vice versa, if my car isn’t driving great, I’m not doing a good job. I’ll fade. That’s the good part about this package, these shorter tracks, the dirty air is a little bit less of a factor.”
Stage Doesn’t Seem As Big Still
NASCAR and Phoenix have done everything right this week. This to me feels like a big event. One could say the second of the season behind Daytona.
You feel it from the airport, to the drive to the track and even once on the ground here. The newest driver to this round, well he doesn’t feel it.
“I’ve honestly been surprised,” said Sunday’s pole sitter, Kyle Larson. “I thought it would be bigger. I think we’re still kind of dealing with the pandemic, a little bit of trying to space us away from fans, media members, stuff like that.
“Like when I was racing, I was never in the Final 4, but at Homestead we all keep an eye on what the four guys are going through. I feel like it’s just busier for them. Denny would probably be able to answer it a lot better than me.
“I feel like it’s been calm. Media day wasn’t too crazy, that long of a day. I guess it hasn’t met the expectations of, like, busyness that I thought it might be.
“I thought it was going to be crazier and harder to manage, cameras, interviews and stuff. Like yesterday I didn’t do one interview after practice. That was kind of surprising being a Final 4 guy, we didn’t have to talk about our day at all.
“Yeah, I thought it was going to be a little crazier.”
Larson, is the only one of the four Championship 4 drivers participating this weekend that’s never been in this moment before. The other three have. That’s why he’s puzzled to know if he’s feeling what he feels is right to feel that way.
Denny Hamlin though tended to agree.
“It’s different. I mean, yeah, it was a little different during that time than it is now,” Hamlin said who’s making his fourth career final round appearance including three straight. “Every year, it’s just a little bit different for different reasons. Pandemic stuff last year, so none of this stuff really happened. 2019 was a different track. Yeah, every finals is a little bit different. This year is also different.
“Certainly more than last year for obvious reasons. Yes is the short answer. Is it as big as it was 10 years ago? No. But is anything really as big as it was 10 years ago…
“I just don’t know. It is kind of, I don’t know, between the two of us, we’ve done it so many times, I get you don’t get in awe as much.
“Certainly I understand the significance of it, the buildup to it.”
Martin Truex Jr. has the most experience with Championship 4’s. This is his fifth. No one else has more. He agreed with his teammate but also says that it still feels like a title to be won.
“I wasn’t in the Final 4 last year. I can imagine it was pretty weird,” he said. “I mean, even just being here as a competitor in general, it was strange. It didn’t feel like a championship race. It didn’t feel like it was a big deal like it normally does.
“I think like this year seems normal kind of to what I remember, come in early, do media. A lot of fans here, which is great. Sold out. Going to be a big show tomorrow. I think we’re all excited to be here and be a part of it.”
Drivers Remaining Low Key Night Before The Race
You’d think the night before a potential life changing moment of a NASCAR championship, the nerves would be high for the four humans going for the title in less than 24 hours. Instead, all four contenders are remaining low key the night before.
“I mean, my plan is to, yeah, I mean, watch the Xfinity race, see how the track evolves, the resin evolves, get a good dinner, go to bed early,” said Kyle Larson.
“There’s other racing to watch on the Internet tonight, too, so I’m sure I’ll tune into that, too. Nothing too different. Yes, I think you pay closer attention for obvious reasons tonight than you might other weeks. There’s a lot to be learned.
“I don’t think any of us have learned enough about the resin yet. You can learn more watching Xfinity cars I feel like than Trucks.”
Martin Truex Jr. is doing the same.
“I’m just going to hang out here, watch the race, make some dinner, chill out.”
What about Denny Hamlin?
“I do the same things I always do. Nothing changes. Been here before, right? I’ve locked myself in a hotel room before, nights before the finals. That doesn’t work.”