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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Aric Almirola continued the trend of non-playoff drivers stealing the show with a pole-winning run Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Saturday night race at Bristol is the first playoff eliminator and the 16-driver field will be cut by four. Christopher Bell is the only driver locked into the next round because non-playoff drivers Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace won the first two rounds.

Now it will be Almirola leading the field to the green flag after Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Chase Briscoe couldn’t knock him from the pole in Friday’s final run. Briscoe, as well as SHR driver Kevin Harvick, are both below the cutline and in danger of playoff elimination.

Almirola, who announced before the start of the season that he was retiring and then did a mid-season about-face, is not racing for the championship. He was 19th in the standings at the end of the regular season.

“We were bummed out we didn’t make the playoffs, but we’re showing what we’re capable of. We can race with these guys,” Almirola said.

His lap at 127.826 mph on the short track held off Briscoe, who went 127.503 mph to put a pair of Fords on the front row. It’s the fourth pole of Almirola’s career.

Alex Bowman of Hendrick Motorsports qualified third in a Chevrolet and was followed by Toyota driver Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Current Cup champion Kyle Larson of Hendrick qualified fifth — hours after announcing a three-year contract extension — ahead of fellow playoff drivers Ryan Blaney of Team Penske, Harvick, Bell of JGR and Austin Cindric of Penske.

Brad Keselowski, who is not playoff eligible for the first time in almost a decade, qualified 10th as Fords took seven of the top-11 starting spots. Cole Custer of SHR qualified 11th.

Kyle Busch, who is in danger of elimination, qualified 21st. He spun in Friday practice and his run with JGR and Toyota is nearing an end. He announced this week he’s moving to Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet next year, and his final title chase with Gibbs will end if the two-time champion is eliminated.

Austin Dillon, who is also below the cutline, qualified 28th. Harvick is last in the 16-driver playoff field and must win Saturday night to advance.

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Georgia’s Bennett arrested for public intoxication

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Georgia's Bennett arrested for public intoxication

Former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to their second straight CFP National Championship earlier this month, was arrested on a misdemeanor public intoxication charge in Dallas on Sunday morning.

In a statement to ESPN, a Dallas Police Department spokesperson said officers responded to a report of a man banging on doors in the 1600 block of Tribeca Way at 7:10 a.m. ET on Sunday.

“The preliminary investigation found when officers arrived, they located the man, Stetson Bennett, 25, and determined he was intoxicated,” the police statement read. “Bennett was taken into custody, transported to the City Detention Center and charged with public intoxication.”

Bennett left the detention center Sunday morning, but he could not be reached for comment.

Bennett, who started his college career as a walk-on, was a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season, after leading the Bulldogs to a 15-0 record and SEC championship. He passed for 4,127 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for another 10 scores.

Bennett was named the offensive MVP in both of Georgia’s victories in the CFP, a 42-41 comeback win against Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a 65-7 rout of TCU in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T.

Bennett, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is considered a potential selection in April’s NFL draft. He recently won the Manning Award, which is given to the top quarterback in the FBS by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

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Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.

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Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.

Former Tennessee and Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout is transferring to Arkansas State, sources told ESPN.

Shrout visited Arkansas State over the weekend and his commitment looms as a significant win for Butch Jones, who is entering his third season as Arkansas State’s head coach.

Shrout will graduate from Colorado this spring and plans to enroll at Arkansas State in May, according to sources. He has one year of eligibility remaining and potentially a second if he gets a medical redshirt after missing the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.

Shrout most recently played at Colorado in 2022, where he threw for 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions and delivered the game-winning touchdown pass against Cal in overtime in Colorado’s lone victory of the season. He started seven games at Colorado and had one start during his three seasons at Tennessee (2018-2020).

Shrout is one of three Buffaloes quarterbacks who have entered the NCAA transfer portal since the school hired Deion Sanders as head coach. Sanders has made it clear that his son, Shedeur, will be the starter next season. He introduced him at his opening news conference by saying, “This is your quarterback.”

According to sources, Shrout was attracted to the potential opportunity at Arkansas State, including playing in offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf’s West Coast-style offense. Shrout also had some teammates at Tennessee who played for Jones, and sources said the former teammates endorsed Jones both as a person and a coach.

Arkansas State (3-9) ranked No. 118 in total offense last season and No. 85 in scoring offense. The Red Wolves open the 2023 season at Oklahoma on Sept. 2.

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Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal

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Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal

Broncos owner Greg Penner and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh met last week in Ann Arbor to discuss Denver’s head-coaching position without any deal materializing, league sources told ESPN.

Although Harbaugh two weeks ago announced he was staying at Michigan, Penner did his due diligence and still traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with the coach in person, like he’s done with seven other candidates during the Broncos’ head-coaching search.

The follow-up conversations were part of the process for both Denver — led by Penner with general manager George Paton — and Harbaugh. The face-to-face meeting came after Harbaugh’s initial video interview with Denver, after which he pulled his name out of contention and reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan.

“I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families,” Harbaugh said in his statement Jan. 16. “My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don’t try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!”

The Broncos moved on as well, continuing their discussions with several other candidates. Denver has interviewed former Saints coach Sean Payton, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, former Stanford coach David Shaw, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and their own defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero.

Harbaugh now has met with the Vikings and Broncos in back-to-back years. While one source wondered how many more chances Harbaugh would get, another league source said “The league is likely to be interested in Jim as long as he is successfully coaching. He’s proven at every level including the NFL. That’s a hard resume to match.”

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