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Ryan Blaney among things to keep an eye on as Cup series readies for Phoenix

Ryan Blaney is pleased he and his team are running up front this season. Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Ryan Blaney sits sixth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings. And granted, it's three races in, but he feels it's a legitimate sixth.

If anyone had any doubt, he backed that up by posting the second-fastest speed in qualifying Friday to start on the front row Sunday in the Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

Blaney's team mixed in with the upper echelon in the garage is fun for the young driver and the Wood Brothers Racing team. After running part-time for several seasons and being in the back of the garage, the team got a taste of being mixed in with the full-time cars last year when Blaney finished 20th in the standings.

Now that he's right by his Team Penske teammates in the garage (Blaney is a Penske development driver), he can sense just how much having a certain garage stall can make one feel.

"You feel a part of the group," Blaney said. "Our team deserves to be there. It is not a fluke that we are up here in points. They have worked hard and we have gotten great finishes.

"I think that motivates everybody, too, to want to stay up there. That has been really big and they definitely have strived off of that to want to stay up there and keep moving forward."

Blaney has scored points in four of the six stages in races so far this season and beyond the runner-up finish at Daytona and then the 18th at Atlanta, Blaney finished seventh last week at Las Vegas.

With five career top-5 finishes, Blaney's best finish is fourth on a non-restrictor-plate track. Don't be surprised if he is better than that Sunday.

"I feel like last year we were close on weekends, but I feel like this year we are starting off a lot closer than what we did last year, for sure," Blaney said. "Our cars have been competitive enough to win -- to be honest with you -- all three races it just was circumstances. It is just about putting a full race together.

"It is really tough to win one of these Cup races. Any race in NASCAR is really tough to win. Everything has to fall your way from on the race track to on pit road and everything like that. All we can do is try to make the car as fast as we can and do the best of minimizing mistakes and taking advantage of opportunities. That is all you can do."

Blaney and others -- and other things -- to watch for Sunday:

Truex Cruising

Martin Truex Jr.'s Furniture Row Racing team has had enough distractions in the offseason and the first racing month of 2017.

It had to change the bodies on all its cars to conform to the new Toyota body style. And then there was the new aerodynamic package all teams have for 2017.

It had to adjust to having a shop filled to the brim with even more cars, as a second crew was added for driver Erik Jones.

And then there was this pesky issue of technical inspection at Daytona, which the team said was the result of its templates being off at the shop. Plus the usual issues for any team trying to push the envelope the last couple of weeks.

But with all that's different, the team can see one similarity to last year: Truex appears to have a car that will be among those to beat. While he might have been second-best Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he won both stages and the race. He will start 16th Sunday.

"They have put several hundred hours in in the last three weeks to catch the bodies up, and with kind of the fiasco that we had down in Daytona," team owner Barney Visser said after the win. "These guys, they pushed themselves, and they did it. ... As the owner of the team, it's fun to watch guys do that.

"I don't crack the whip. They just do it."

The other thing that sticks out is they have a win this year in a race where they took advantage of the Brad Keselowski mechanical issue in the waning laps at Las Vegas. It had seemed to be Truex's fate to lose those types of races in the past.

"The important thing for us is we're starting off the season strong," Truex said. "We're putting ourselves in position to win races, and that's really the key. If we can continue to run up front, lead laps, run at the front of the pack all day, you're going to put yourself into position to win races, and that's what we did.

"This is the first time we've really taken advantage of somebody else's issue. I'm sure if we keep running up front, it's going to happen again. We'll just keep working hard and see what we can do."

It's Phoenix, So Harvick

Kevin Harvick isn't worried about starting 23rd. Ask him about it and he'll say: "Check your stats."

Here are the stats:

* In his win at Phoenix a year ago, he started 18th.

* That win marked the fourth time he had won at Phoenix when starting 13th or worse.

* In the past 10 races at Phoenix, he has started no worse than 19th.

"We just haven't really qualified that well here lately at this particular race track," Harvick said. "Our race stuff has been pretty good."

Harvick has led 994 laps in winning four of the past six races at Phoenix and has eight career wins at the 1-mile track.

The Heat

With temperatures in the mid-90s, teams can expect car temperatures running hot Sunday. That could also lead to potentially melting beads in the tires.

The cars don't run as fast in hot temperatures, meaning that the tires should hold up better because of less load on them, and Goodyear officials didn't seem worried about excessive tire wear.

But the grip of the tires could fall off a little more quickly thanks to the heat.

"When it is hot the track gets wide," said Joey Logano, who will start from the pole. "it is greasy, there is a lot more passing, tires become more important due to more fall-off and everything points to a very good race when the sun is out. In my opinion, the racing gets a lot better.

"It will be warm, but we train for this. It shouldn't be a big deal."