Chase co-leader Denny Hamlin earns pole for Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix

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Denny Hamlin set a new Sprint Cup qualifying track record en route to a critical pole for Sunday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix International Raceway.

Hamlin’s lap of 142.113 mph in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was enough to earn him his third pole of 2014 and a psychological boost going into Sunday’s race, which will determine the four drivers that will compete for the Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend.

Six of the eight Chasers advanced to the final round of qualifying, which began with Matt Kenseth (sixth in points, -1 point behind cutoff) being the first to post a time. Early on, Phoenix master Kevin Harvick (eighth, -6 points behind cutoff) hit the top with a lap of 141.995 mph, but he was eventually eclipsed by Hamlin’s 25.332-second blitz around the one-mile oval.

After qualifying, Hamlin admitted he wasn’t sure if his lap would hold up.

“[I just] hit my marks perfectly, and the adjustments kept getting better,” he told ESPN. “The team just kept making my car better and allowed me to drive harder and harder.

“We showed up today and had decent speed in race trim, not great speed but decent speed. But we didn’t show decent speed in qualifying and it just shows today that it’s possible. We’ve got it in our car. We just gotta get for 312 laps now.”

Hamlin and Chase co-leader Joey Logano both carry 13-point cushions over the cutoff to advance to Homestead. They each need finishes of 11th or better on Sunday to enter the final battle.

After Hamlin set his hot lap, Brad Keselowski (seventh, -5 points behind cutoff) moved up to second on the leader board with a lap of 142.079 mph in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.

The Michigan native made another late run but was unable to get one spot better. Either way, he’ll be starting on the front row alongside Hamlin, who told reporters earlier this week that Keselowski must show more respect for his fellow racers after he and Jeff Gordon were at the center of a post-race fight last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Harvick, who has won five times at PIR, will start third and is joined by Logano in the second row. Kenseth ultimately slid to Row 3, which he’ll share with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. Jeff Gordon (fourth, +1 point above cutoff) starts on the inside of Row 4.

Kurt Busch, who is now having to deal with allegations of domestic assault that came out just earlier today, qualified 10th.

The other two men in the Eliminator 8, Carl Edwards (fifth, -1 point behind cutoff) and Ryan Newman (third, +11 points above cutoff), qualified 13th and 20th respectively.

“The battle for us was that we were very slow in practice, but [crew chief] Jimmy [Fennig] and the guys did a great job,” Edwards said. “They basically rolled the dice, changed six things [on the car], and it worked…I know 13th’s not great, but considering that I thought we were gonna be 25th, I’m real happy.”

Meanwhile, Newman will now focus on improving the driveability of his Richard Childress Racing Chevy in the two practice sessions on Saturday.

“You only get so many options here to pit and work on your race car, so you better have it good on your first run,” said Newman.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT PHOENIX
Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 (Eliminator Round Finale)
Starting Lineup
1. 11-Denny Hamlin
2. 2-Brad Keselowski
3. 4-Kevin Harvick
4. 22-Joey Logano
5. 20-Matt Kenseth

6. 18-Kyle Busch
7. 24-Jeff Gordon
8. 42-Kyle Larson
9. 55-Brian Vickers
10. 41-Kurt Busch
11. 27-Paul Menard
12. 13-Casey Mears
13. 99-Carl Edwards
14. 78-Martin Truex Jr.
15. 48-Jimmie Johnson
16. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
17. 15-Clint Bowyer
18. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
19. 1-Jamie McMurray
20. 31-Ryan Newman
21. 9-Marcos Ambrose
22. 5-Kasey Kahne
23. 43-Aric Almirola
24. 47-AJ Allmendinger
25. 3-Austin Dillon
26. 33-Ty Dillon
27. 51-Justin Allgaier
28. 16-Greg Biffle
29. 14-Tony Stewart
30. 7-Michael Annett
31. 95-Michael McDowell
32. 10-Danica Patrick
33. 36-Reed Sorenson
34. 38-David Gilliland
35. 34-David Ragan
36. 98-Josh Wise
37. 23-Alex Bowman
38. 40-Landon Cassill
39. 37-Mike Bliss
40. 26-Cole Whitt
41. 83-JJ Yeley
42. 32-Joey Gase
43. 66-Mike Wallace
DNQ: 75-Clay Rogers
Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers in italics

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
IMSA
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”