Dale Jr. tops Friday practice for Sprint Cup at Phoenix

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Coming ahead of the debut of NASCAR’s new knock-out qualifying format, today’s 90-minute practice session for the Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix International Raceway was already going to be important.

But with rain in the forecast this weekend in Phoenix – particularly for tonight and Saturday – there’s the distinct possibility that today’s practice may be the only one the Cup stars get for Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500.

One driver that appears ready is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who made his way to the top of the time sheets late today with a lap of 25.951 seconds around the one-mile PIR oval.

Before practice, the newly-crowned Daytona 500 champion said that it would be easy to get back into a racing mindset this weekend after his cross-country media blitz over the last few days.

“[The team and I are] still gonna be talking and thinking and joking about that win even [during] this weekend, but that’s not a bad problem to have on a race weekend – talking about last week,” he said to reporters.

“I feel like I shouldn’t have any problem getting out there on the race track and doing the best I can do. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve had the opportunity to win races and get back next weekend and do it again. It should be no problem.”

Joey Logano was second-fastest in the session with a time of 26.022 seconds, followed by Kyle Busch in third (26.042), Greg Biffle in fourth (26.104), and rookie Austin Dillon in fifth (26.125).

Weather permitting, qualifying is set to take place later this evening at 6:40 p.m. ET and will feature the two-round version of the new format, as Phoenix is less than 1.25 miles in length.

The Top 12 cars from the 30-minute opening round will move into the 10-minute second round that determines the pole sitter for Sunday’s event.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.