AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR has celebrated its young drivers all season, and two of those young drivers face their biggest one-race challenge Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
Both Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott face a difficult task as they try to go from outside the bubble to earning the last spot among the four championship drivers for the season finale next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Five drivers are battling for that final spot, which will go to any of the five with a win. If none of them win, the highest in points will join Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to compete for the title.
Blaney sits third among those five, 22 points behind Brad Keselowski for the final spot. Elliott is fourth, 49 points behind. Elliott almost certainly has to win; Blaney could rally on points, but he would also have to pass Denny Hamlin, who is three points ahead of Blaney.
Blaney will start from the pole Sunday with Hamlin next to him. Elliott starts fourth.
“I don’t really think it’s [about] handling pressure,” Blaney said. “We’re really not under any pressure right now. We’re out. If we were in right now, if we were, like, in a spot where we could get bumped out, that would be pressure, and 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 time [a team] rises to those occasions, and that’s what I like. I think that’s when real teams show what they’re made of.”
Both young drivers have faced high-stakes situations this year. Elliott nearly won the Daytona 500 before he ran out of gas. Blaney had to rally from the rear of the field at Kansas to avoid elimination in the quarterfinal round.
“I don’t really feel a lot of pressure in any situation,” Blaney said. “I thought the situation at Kansas was a big challenge for us, and I thought the way that we handled it in overcoming it was a big statement for our team and a big realization for us that we can come from the back, we can race with the best teams and cars, and we deserve that right.
“I thought that was a big confidence booster for everybody, not only me.”
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth already saying they won’t race next year, and Danica Patrick possibly going to follow them to the sidelines, NASCAR has hopes that young drivers such as the 23-year-old Blaney, the 21-year-old Elliott and the 25-year-old Kyle Larson will be among the future stars.
“[The pressure] is definitely similar leading the closing laps of that [Daytona 500] race, not really knowing what was going to happen and having a shot to win the Daytona 500,” Elliott said. “Obviously, it’s one of our biggest events … but also right now is an important part of our season.
“A championship is huge, and being able to race for one is an opportunity any driver would want. I’m fortunate to currently have had opportunities to do both and have an opportunity to compete for a championship — still do have an opportunity, which is more than I could say a year ago [when eliminated in the quarterfinal round].”
Neither Elliott nor Blaney had participated in an elimination-style playoff system until getting to Cup. Elliott has made the playoffs in both of his full-time seasons. For Blaney, it’s his first time in his second full-time Cup season.
Both felt the intensity of the playoffs at Martinsville, where Hamlin turned Elliott for the lead with a couple of laps remaining and Blaney using up every fender in his car in battles with Kevin Harvick and others.
“It’s just really neat to be a part of it, and it is kind of everything I expected,” said Blaney, who drives for the Wood Brothers Racing team. “There are some moments that get a little crazy, and you’re kind of dumbfounded that things happen, like the Martinsville stuff was, like, ‘Wow, people are racing hard,’ and there are some things that surprise you, but it is really everything that I expected.”
The intensity could start from the beginning for Elliott, who could be right behind Hamlin at the start. Hamlin said he wouldn’t worry about payback for Martinsville in the opening laps at Phoenix.
“I’m not worried,” Hamlin said. “Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do, and that’s to win. Our objective is the same objective as his — it’s to go out there and win on Sunday.
“You really can’t worry about other guys. If you’ve got that in front of you and you’re thinking about that, your chances of winning are slim to none.”
Elliott led 106 laps at Phoenix in March. He has had several other races, including Martinsville, where he had a shot to win. Elliott said he has tried to learn from the disappointment.
“What happened last week, or a month ago, or the beginning of the season, or having an opportunity to win and not, it is nothing you can change now,” Elliott said. “You just have to understand whatever position that you are in and hope that you learn something from that experience to know that if you are ever in that position again, you can change the outcome.”
With the speed he has shown in recent races and at Phoenix, Elliott should feel he has a chance. He also drives for a Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 team, guided by crew chief Alan Gustafson, that had success with Jeff Gordon at Phoenix.
“Alan and Chase both have a good feel for this track. … I feel Chase’s chances are high,” said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who himself faces a must-win situation, as he is last among the five remaining drivers. “This has been a great track for him and that car historically.”
And for anyone who thinks Elliott had to adjust to the intensity and pressure of the playoffs, think again.
“Fortunately for me, while being in Cup, I have never really been used to anything else,” Elliott said. “So, it’s kind of what I have always seen, so I don’t necessarily think [I need to adjust to it]. … That is the best thing about being new to something is that you don’t necessarily know an old way.”