Sunday’s playoff cutdown race at Phoenix International Raceway will determine the fourth and final driver into the championship next weekend at Homestead, but that’s not the only storyline out in the desert. Some notes and observations from Friday in Arizona:
▪ Ryan Blaney came out of nowhere to win his second-ever pole for Sunday’s race at Phoenix. Blaney doesn’t earn any points for that finish, but it does prove he has a car with enough potential to advance to Homestead next weekend. Behind him, Denny Hamlin will start second, Kyle Larson third, Chase Elliott fourth and Martin Truex Jr. fifth. The other remaining playoff drivers who have yet to advance are Jimmie Johnson, who will start 12th, and Brad Keselowski, who will start 16th.
▪ It’s been a heck of a second season for Chase Elliott, and he still technically has a chance to make it into the championship four at Homestead. But having finished second six times in his young Cup Series career and never won, plus all the drama that happened to him at Martinsville two weeks ago, Elliott said this season won’t be truly satisfying unless he advances.
“The opportunities we have had these first eight weeks (of the playoffs) were tremendous,” Elliott said. “It would be disappointing to not make it for sure knowing how we have run in the playoffs and how we have competed with some of the guys that have made it in or are currently working their way in.”
▪ Prayers out to Barney Visser, the owner of Furniture Row Racing, who suffered a heart attack last Saturday and had successful bypass surgery on Monday. He’s still in the hospital, but a source said he’s hoping to get out today. Visser’s driver, Martin Truex Jr., is one of four competing for a championship at Homestead next week. However, it’s still up in the air whether or not Visser will have recovered enough to make the journey. Here’s to a quick comeback.
▪ Jimmie Johnson is currently eighth in the playoff standings, last of the remaining drivers. He barely survived into this round of the playoffs, and now he’ll need a win Sunday to advance to compete for a record eighth championship next week at Homestead. Johnson said that other than 2015, this has been his toughest season.
▪ As Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement tour winds down, Phoenix International Raceway offered up two gifts to the sport’s most popular driver. The first was a barrel of specialty pickles, which Earnhardt once tweeted were the best he’s ever had, that are grown locally. Dill Jr. for Dale Jr., if you will. The second, and the more important of the two, was a $100,000 donation to Childhelp, an organization that combats child abuse nationwide.
“What an awesome amount of money to donate. That is quite generous,” Earnhardt said. “I think on behalf of myself and my family, all our fans, we really want to thank you guys for that, and that will hopefully make a lot of people’s lives a lot better.”
▪ Lastly, a personal note that is impossible not to mention. A few miles down the road from the track there is a Starbucks. A couple walked out of the store Friday morning, into the parking lot ... and literally got on their horses. Not as a matter of speech, but the actual animals. They then proceeded to trot down the sidewalk back to their homes, coffees in one hand and the reins in the other. As if another reminder was necessary that urban Charlotte and the desert are worlds apart.