No one is hotter entering this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs than Ryan Blaney. The Team Penske driver has scored two straight wins over the final two weeks of the 26 race regular season to go along with a runner-up the week before that.
Combined, he’s had seven top six finishes over the last eight races. With that said, how much does this momentum that he’s found over the last couple of months translate over to making a deep playoff run this Fall?
“It’s great. Momentum and confidence are something that we have right now in the 12 group because obviously, the last couple of weekends it really helps get that rolling,” Blaney said during Media Day on Thursday. “It’s good for everybody, not only for the driver but for the team as well when they have a lot of confidence in themselves and their abilities and you can believe that you can do it and make a strong run at the championship. That’s part of the game.
“You’ve got to believe you can do it and this team does believe in themselves and they have every right to. They’re a great group of guys. It’s been a pleasure to work with them, but it’s nice to end the regular season strong and have a good year. Three wins on the year and you hope to keep that going throughout the playoffs and keep transferring and try to make it to Phoenix and have a shot at a championship. So, it has been a fun year and it has been nice to end the regular season out this way and start off Darlington here this weekend with a bunch of momentum and our heads held high and we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The other factor of winning two more races before the playoffs are the 10 playoff points that go with it. That’s something Blaney hasn’t had the luxury of having for a postseason in the sense that his 24 playoff points accumulated thus far rank second most.
“I think it’s been nice to finish out the regular season strong, especially with two wins back-to-back right before the start of the playoffs and get a lot of playoff points and be seeded second,” he continued. “That’s something I haven’t really had in my other playoff attempts is really a lot of bonus points, and not a lot to really have in your back pocket in case you have a bad race or just kind of an extra cushion, so that stuff is nice to have, that’s for sure.
“It really does help you out, but really the focus is the same, just trying to do our job the best we can, trying to perform just like we’ve been performing the past couple months here and you just try to keep that up. It’s definitely a better position to be in on our side than where we have been in year’s past and you just hope to utilize it.”
Prior to his Michigan win, he only had 14 of them. Now that he has the luxury of having them in his back pocket should he need them, that should hopefully advance him out of the first round and not get him eliminated like it did a year ago.
See, the tracks in the second round favors Blaney. In Las Vegas, he has seven top seven finishes in his last nine starts in the Nevada desert including a fifth place run this past March. After that it’s to Talladega to where he won the playoff race in 2019 and the spring race last year. He was ninth this past spring. Then it’s to the ROVAL to where Blaney was runner-up a few weeks ago on the Indy road course as well as winning the inaugural race on the Charlotte road course to go along with a top eight in all three starts there.
From then, it’s to Texas in the Round of 8 where Blaney had a pair of top 10’s a year ago including leading the most laps and on his way to winning the July race before a fluke late race caution. In Kansas, Blaney has six top seven finishes. Then it’s to Martinsville to where he had a pair of runner-ups in 2020 and a fourth and fifth place run respectively in 2019.
Replicating that success in the six combined tracks in the Round of 12 and Round of 8, plus his momentum, plus his playoff points could be enough to advance him to his first ever Championship 4 this November at Phoenix.
But, in order to do so, you have to get out of the first round at what are arguably his worst tracks.
“RIchmond is not a place we’ve run spectacular at in the past, but something I really have my mind on is Richmond and Darlington,” Blaney said. “Earlier this year we ran the best we’ve ever run. We ran top five at Darlington most of the day and ended up eighth and at Richmond we ran top five in the first stage and kind of got away from the handling and ended up running 11th and having just a good solid day there, so the confidence for me is having a couple good races there earlier this year.
“Once you do have a solid race at a track you might not have had good runs at before, it gives you the mindset of, ‘OK, I haven’t run great here in the past, but we had a good race. Let’s work on that.’ Now I kind of have an idea of what I need to feel in the car, how I need to drive the racetrack, and what I need to work on throughout the race to try to stay up there and be competitive.
“That’s a great notebook we have from earlier this year at both of those racetracks and I’m looking forward to getting back there to build off of that because I think we can run as good there as anywhere else. It was just a matter of time and you hope to utilize what you learned previously and apply it.”
If that ends up being the case, then Blaney is absolutely the strongest sleeper in the field. He’s championship worthy and maybe 2021 is the time he can shine and back up Elliott’s title a year ago with one himself.