Ryan Blaney was a solid pick to not only make the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but one who could be a nice sleeper to make a deep run at that.
Blaney, had a solid first half of the regular season. In fact, I could make a case to where his No. 12 Ford was arguably one of the fastest cars on the race track. He jumped out of the gates to what should have been three straight top two finishes.
He was runner-up in Daytona. Was second at the time of a late race caution a week later in Vegas and second again before a tire problem in the closing laps at Fontana. He crashed to end the west coast swing at Phoenix, then the pandemic happened.
Still, after a rough resumption of his season at Darlington (16th, 21st) he came back with authority. Blaney, rattled off six top four finishes in a seven race span. The only hiccup was a crash while leading at Bristol on May 31.
“There‘s nothing you can do about it now,” Blaney said. “What happened at Darlington happened and what happened tonight is already done and gone, so all we can do is look for Bristol and go try to have a really good run and try to win the race and move on. That‘s our only hope, but we certainly picked a bad time to start running bad, but hopefully we can get it turned around. We‘ve got one week to do it.”
The silver lining was that the pace was there and following a win in mid June at Talladega, he was there as arguably a championship sleeper. Unfortunately, he’s going to rough it out just to make it out of the first round now.
Blaney, finished 24th two Sunday’s in the Southern 500 at the Darlington (SC) Raceway — last among playoff drivers. He also lost 10 points due to his car having problems in pre race inspection. He was in a tie for last in the playoff standings (-17) then.
Last Saturday, Blaney finished 19th at the Richmond (VA) Raceway. That leaves him (-27) now heading into the Round 1 cut off race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.
Who had Blaney as a first round exit?
Over the last 15 starts, Blaney has just one top five finish. He only has four top 10’s at that. 8 of his last 15 races have seen him finish 19th or worse.
Now, it’s all down to Bristol.
“First off, Blaney has done this long enough and has been in these positions before, so I think you kind of figure out what you need in your own way,” said Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, who finished third at Richmond. “Ryan Blaney is a different than Joey Logano and different than Brad Keselowski and different than Chase Elliott and the next guy and the next guy. The same thing that works for me is not going to work for him. We’re wired differently. We all are.
“I think the biggest thing is you dig deep down inside and you figure out what makes you tick, what makes you have a little bit more. … You’ve got to level up. That’s what the playoffs are about.”
During the 26-race regular season, Blaney had five finishes outside the top 30 and seven finishes outside the top 20. He also had eight top fives and 11 top 10s.
During the May event at Bristol, Blaney led 60 laps but wrecked out early and ended up 40th. It marked his worst finish ever at the .533-mile track. He also had one top five and four top 10s in his nine other career starts there — highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the spring of 2019.
“Just go win the damn thing,” Team Penske teammate and Richmond race winner Brad Keselowski said. “He’s really good at Bristol and he can do that. Don’t think about it, just go win it.”
Blaney has been feast of famine at Bristol too. He has been fast in leading 100 or more laps in three of his last five starts and 60 more back in May, but has finished 10th or worse in eight of his 10 starts on the high banked Tennessee oval top. He’s scored just one top five at Bristol despite leading so many laps.
So, the situation for Blaney is that he needs to turn this season around at tracks he’s not been statistically great at. Can he do it?
“It’s our season,” Blaney said on Thursday. “I caution those in front of me. I’m not going to be behind them very long if we’re faster than them.”