By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Ryan Blaney has struck the first blow of the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway by timing in the fastest of the four title contenders in the lone practice session of the weekend.
The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford put up a lap of 27.602 seconds, 130.425 mph early in the 50-minute session, putting him third on the overall leaderboard and he would not be moved for the remainder of evening.
Christopher Bell followed Blaney in practice at fourth-fastest in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, while Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson finished practice in seventh and 10th, respectively, in their Chevrolets.
Coming into the weekend, Blaney has the momentum among the four championship contenders, having won a week ago at Martinsville to punch his ticket to the championship race and also finishing as the runner-up at Phoenix over the past two races.
“Ryan Blaney gets around Phoenix really, really well,” said Blaney’s crew chief Jonathan Hassler. “There’s never been a time here that we haven’t had speed, at least short-run speed in our car. I think the challenge for us as a team is to put a car under him that will hang on through a long run.”
While Larson brought up the tail end of the championship contenders and even had a close call with the outside wall at one point, Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels was quick to note that it was nothing to worry about and he is just fine with his driver pushing the limits.
“We have a small paint mark, which I think happened on the straightaway. Didn’t even happen like going off a corner. That’s no big deal, thankfully,” Daniels said.
“I want to say there’s maybe been 10 times this year we’ve revinyled a right rear quarter panel. This is perfect. We will be revinyling our right rear quarter panel tomorrow morning. Right in line where we need to be (smiling).”
Kyle Busch was the overall leader in practice, followed by Bubba Wallace in second, Ross Chastain in fifth, Joey Logano in sixth, Tyler Reddick in eighth, Ty Gibbs in ninth, and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top-10.
Practice was halted once when Busch and AJ Allmendinger got together in Turn 4, which sent Allmendinger for a side down through the dogleg. Both drivers escaped the incident with only minor damage and practice resumed shortly thereafter.
Next up for the Cup Series will be qualifying to set the field on Saturday afternoon at 4:35 pm ET on USA, leading into the season finale at 3:00 pm ET on NBC.