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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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Rangers option rookie Leiter after shaky debut

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Rangers option rookie Leiter after shaky debut

ATLANTA — Texas Rangers rookie right-hander Jack Leiter was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock on Friday, one day after allowing seven runs in his major league debut.

The Rangers recalled right-hander Owen White from Round Rock to provide bullpen depth for the start of their weekend series against the Atlanta Braves.

Leiter, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft, allowed seven runs on eight hits in 3⅔ innings in Thursday’s 9-7 win at the Detroit Tigers. He walked three and struck out three.

Leiter, the son of Al Leiter, who won 162 games in 19 major league seasons, was promoted after he went 1-1 with 25 strikeouts and three walks in 14 innings over three appearances for Round Rock.

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Rocky flight: FAA probes MLB coach’s video post

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Rocky flight: FAA probes MLB coach's video post

The Federal Aviation Administration and United Airlines are investigating an incident involving the Colorado Rockies during a chartered flight from Denver to Toronto.

In a since-deleted video posted to social media, Rockies hitting coach Hensley Meulens is seen sitting in a pilot’s seat in the cockpit while the plane is in flight.

“Had some fun in the cockpit on our flight from Denver to Toronto. Thanks to the captain and the first officer of our United charter that allowed me this great experience,” Meulens wrote in a caption for the social media post.

A United spokesperson said the airline was conducting its own investigation of the April 10 flight. The airline said the cockpit visit was “a clear violation of our safety and operational policies” and was reported to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’re deeply disturbed by what we see in that video, which appears to show an unauthorized person in the flight deck at cruise altitude while the autopilot was engaged,” United spokesperson Russell Carlton said.

The pilots on the flight have been withheld from service while the airline investigates, Carlton said.

A spokesman for the FAA said it does not “comment on the details of open investigations” but noted that “federal regulations restrict flight deck access to specific individuals.”

Rockies manager Bud Black said Friday that Meulens apologized to the organization and United Airlines.

“I can’t comment really any further because of the investigation of the matter,” Black said, according to The Denver Post. He also said the incident won’t impact Meulens’ employment.

Meulens is in his second year as the team’s hitting coach. He has previously served as a coach and manager for the Dutch national team.

Colorado (4-15) has lost five straight, including its final two games against the Blue Jays.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Rockies put Freeland on IL due to strained elbow

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Rockies put Freeland on IL due to strained elbow

The Colorado Rockies placed left-hander Kyle Freeland on the 15-day injured list Friday with a left elbow strain.

The move is retroactive to Tuesday.

Freeland appeared to injure his right shoulder while attempting to score the go-ahead run in the ninth inning Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies. Manager Bud Black, however, said Freeland was “fine” after the game.

Freeland, 30, has limped to a 0-3 record with a 13.21 ERA in four games (all starts) this season. He is 55-68 with a 4.53 ERA in 188 career games (183 starts) with the Rockies.

Also on Friday, Colorado recalled right-hander Noah Davis from Triple-A Albuquerque.

Davis, 26, owns a 0-2 record with a 6.62 ERA in four games (all starts) with the Isotopes. He is 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in nine career games (six starts) with the Rockies.

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