If you’ve ever wondered just how much pressure the drivers are under, wind back the DVR to the end of Round 1 of qualification for the TicketGuardian 500k at ISM Raceway and watch two of the mildest-mannered drivers exchange blows. Daniel Suarez felt Michael McDowell held him up during his fast lap and cost him enough time to keep him from advancing.
In retaliation, he swerved in front of McDowell on his fast lap. To make sure his point was made, he stormed into McDriver’s pits and took a swing at the competitor. The incident put Suarez 28th on the grid, McDowell 27th, and both drivers heading to the NASCAR hauler to talk about sportsmanship. By all accounts, the results of that conversation were inconclusive.
Blaney’s lap of 141.287 mph in Round 3 of qualification gave him his second career pole on this track following a previous top spot in fall 2017. That race was meaningful for a couple of reasons. After sweeping the top 10 in his rookie season, Blaney went on to fail to get a top-15 in either Phoenix race that season. He finished on the lead lap in 17th. In many ways, it has gone downhill since then with another pair of sub-15th-place finishes in which he failed to finish on the lead lap. Blaney was strong all day on Saturday in practice, however, and this could signal a turnaround.
Elliott’s lap of 140.171 mph lines him up on the outside of the front row for the fifth time in the last six Phoenix races. The driver of the No. 9 experienced crash damage last fall and fell three laps off the pace to finish 23rd after starting second, but his two race immediately preceding that ended in top-fives.
A pair of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers start on the second row with Denny Hamlin (140.007) and Kyle Busch (139.855) qualifying third and fourth respectively. Gibbs has been great on most of the short flat tracks throughout their history and Hamlin is widely considered a master of this course type. He has been much less consistent in recent seasons than he was a few years back, but then again he is not as expensive at Busch in cap games and is therefore a better value.
Kevin Harvick qualified eighth for his fourth consecutive top-10 start at Phoenix. He complained mildly about his car after final practice on Saturday, but that does not mean he won’t dominate the race like he has so many times in the past.
Chris Buescher topped the single lap speed chart in the Saturday morning session with a lap of 137.973 mph. He was fifth-best in terms of 10 lap averages, but told reporters after the session that he felt he lost too much time after that short run. The team apparently set about trying to find out where he lost the time, because Buescher plummeted down the chart in Happy Hour and was only 22nd fastest and 21st-quick in terms of 10 lap averages.
Blaney had the second fastest time in Saturday morning practice with a lap of 137.915 mph. He was also second fastest in Happy Hour. Those speeds combine with his pole winning effort to confirm his overall strength. In regard to 10-lap averages, Blaney was seventh in the morning and fourth in Happy Hour.
In the final session, Blaney lost out to teammate Joey Logano in regard to the fastest single lap. Logano was also quickest on the 10-lap average chart with a speed of 136.137 mph. Like Blaney, Logano has not been overly impressive during the past two years on this one-mile oval, but with the way Penske has been running in 2019, it is a good bet that the organization is going to outperform recent performances.
Harvick had the second-quickest 10-lap average in Happy Hour at 136.009 mph. Not much else needs to be said to make him a favorite in light of his 50 percent winning average over the last 14 Phoenix races.