AVONDALE, Ariz. -- There's no denying the rapid changing of the guard in NASCAR, and this year's playoff proved how quickly the young drivers can make their way in this sport.
Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson claimed four of the 16 playoff positions -- a glimpse of the future.
Blaney and Elliott are the only two still in the playoff, and they are among five drivers racing Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for one spot in next week's championship finale. Blaney will start from the pole and Elliott will start fourth.
Their competition? Seven-time and defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, probably the most successful active driver without a title.
A win Sunday by any of the five earns them an automatic berth into the finale at Homestead. Already qualified for the title race are 2015 champion Kyle Busch, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., the most dominant driver this season.
Blaney is ready to roll in the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford.
"I don't really feel a lot of pressure in any situation," he said after winning the pole. He also noted that by points he's not currently in the fourth spot. Should none of the five contenders win, the final spot will go to the driver highest in points, and that is currently Keselowski.
"We're really not under any pressure right now. We're out," Blaney said. "If we were in right now -- if we were like in a spot where we could get bumped out -- that would be pressure.
"We're up for the challenge. I think this team rises to those occasions, and that's what I like."
Elliott likened his situation to the closing laps of the Daytona 500, when he ran out of gas while leading. Opportunities come and go, and he's learning that he's got to grab them when he has the chance.
"This is my second time in the playoffs. We are still a part of it right now, and that is more than I could say a year ago," said Elliott. "I am obviously going to try to do everything that I can."
If Blaney and Elliott fail to advance to Homestead, it will be a victory for the old guard in NASCAR. The three already in are longtime veterans, which is no longer the best thing to be in NASCAR. As older drivers are being moved around for young, new faces, many have gone overlooked.
Team Penske's Keselowski has been overshadowed by fellow Ford star Blaney this season, while Elliott has been the best of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers and has easily outperformed Johnson through the playoff. Harvick has had a very quiet season. Hamlin's performance hasn't been anything of headlines.
The class of the field has been Truex, and when he wasn't dominating, usually Larson was. But Larson suffered an engine failure in the second round of the playoff.
For Elliott, advancing would mean a Chevrolet will race for the championship. The field already includes two Toyotas (Truex and Busch) and one Ford (Harvick).
"For us, it's pretty simple: You either win or we are not a part of the four next week," Elliott said. "The points calculations this week are really irrelevant to us. It sounds simple -- just a matter of going to do it."
Can-Am 500K Lineup
FRIDAY QUALIFYING; RACE TODAY
AT PHOENIX RACEWAY
(CAR NUMBER IN PARENTHESES)
1. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 137.942 mph.
2. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 137.936.
3. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 137.926.
4. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 137.641.
5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 137.583.
6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 137.247.
7. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 137.190.
8. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 137.075.
9. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 136.711.
10. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 136.467.
11. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 136.374.
12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 136.224.
13. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 136.841.
14. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 136.322.
15. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 136.307.
16. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 136.302.
17. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 136.281.
18. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 136.044.
19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 135.864.
20. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 135.670.
21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.588.
22. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 135.308.
23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 135.227.
24. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 134.862.
25. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 135.634.
26. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 135.354.
27. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 135.318.
28. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 135.293.
29. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 135.014.
30. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 134.847.
31. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 134.695.
32. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 134.519.
33. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 133.551.
34. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 133.546.
35. (7) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 133.482.
36. (66) David Starr, Toyota, 132.558.
37. (15) DJ Kennington, Chevrolet, 132.251.
38. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 131.617.
39. (51) Kyle Weatherman, Chevrolet, 127.042.
40. (00) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 0.000.