DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. had a race within a race between themselves for this weekend’s Coke Zero Sugar 400. With Kurt Busch withdrawing his medical waiver to be a part of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, it opened up a spot for someone new.
If that doesn’t happen, then neither of these 2 drivers are in the 16 driver playoff field right now. Austin Dillon would have taken that 16th and final spot. However, since Busch is out, it allowed Blaney or Truex to take the 16th and only wildcard spot into the field.
It was a wild way to get there too.
Blaney and Truex Jr. each said on Friday that their gameplans were similar and simple. Score points. Blaney just needed 31 of them to get by. Truex more than likely would have to win. For a driver that’s a combined 0-for-69 at Daytona and Talladega, he’d rather not have to rely on that.
So stage points were his friend. Blaney knowing this thought he couldn’t punt on them either. There’s was a worst case potential for Blaney being caught up in a crash early, which he was, but also another scenario to where if he scored zero stage points and Truex swept both stages like he did in February, then his lead would drop from 25 over Truex to 5.
However, Blaney did get caught up in an early crash. On Lap 30 even. He had damage to his No. 12 Ford and would have to pit for repairs. He’d fall multiple laps down in the process. Blaney would finish 34th in each stage.
Truex was 5th in Stage 1 and 2nd in Stage 2 to net him 15 stage points. The gap dwindled down to 10 between the two entering the final stage.
Truex was collected in the Lap 101 crash on the backstretch. Was this it? He’d carry on but had damage. Blaney was limping around in the back.
Then came that Lap 137 big one. A lot of cars were taken out. Rain then fell which is the whole reason for the crash. That ironically enough helped Blaney get advance and Truex not.
At that moment, it appeared this race was over. Austin Dillon would get scored as the winner and Truex in on points for the final spot. NASCAR didn’t want to end the race this way so they waited it out.
3+ hours later, the track was dried and ready. 10 cars ahead of Blaney in the running order were out. If he could limp around for 6 laps, he’d go from 29th to 19th.
That’s what happened.
Then Harrison Burton dropped out with too much damage. He’s then up to 18th. Burton was followed shortly after to the garage by both Petty GMS Racing cars. 18th turned to 16th. Cole Custer lost 2 more laps and 16th turned to 15th.
Truex now had to finish 4th or better. He was there. Until he wasn’t. His car wasn’t good enough with the damage that he suffered and he’d fade back to 8th.
“We just had too much damage at the end,” Truex said. “We had a good spot on the restart and we got a good restart. We got (Austin Cindric) up front, which is what we were trying to do, but just couldn’t keep up. Just too much damage. It’s s shame. We knew it was going to be tough with so many cars out of the race and the distance between me and (Ryan Blaney). It was going to be hard to hang on to fourth or better with a car that torn up.”
That simply enough is how Blaney took the final playoff spot.
“I’m going to go home and crack open a beer and relax a little bit because that was a stressful day,” Blaney said. “That was a long weekend. No qualifying, not getting in the car, don’t race, wait around after you get wrecked, then you have a rain delay. Just definitely mentally draining. It will be nice to relax a little bit.
“Yeah, we’re very fortunate. That’s for sure.
“It was not a good day getting going and getting up early. At that point our fate was not really in our hands. All we could do is try to keep working on it and fix it to where we could make laps.
“Thankfully we were able to get enough cars throughout the wrecks that we kind of just kept moving up and were able to get in.
“That’s definitely a lot more stressful than I wanted coming into here, but I just got to give a lot of props to the 12 group, you know, for fixing it and sticking with it all day. That’s why you do it.
“Your day can start off like that, and you just stay with it and stay in the game. And it was definitely beneficial for us.
“Appreciate them, Advance Auto Ports Ford. We’ll go race for a championship.”
As far as his emotions while riding around with a damage race car is such a pressure filled race?
“Really throughout the race when we got on our wreck so early, you try to stay optimistic. You know, you never know what can happen.
“Whether it’s a new winner or we can still try to beat the 19 on points, you just try to stay optimistic and in the game. Just not think about the negatives. Even though it’s really easy to think about the negatives, you try not to.
“Definitely a roller coaster of emotions, and luckily it ended on a high for our group.”
Blaney beat Truex by three points and despite being 4th in points, Truex is eliminated. It ends a stretch of 7 straight years that he was in the postseason including a Championship 4 appearance in 4 of the last 5 years.
“It sucks,” Truex said of missing the playoffs. “You race your ass off all year and you work hard and you try to do all the things it takes and to come up three points short is pretty tough to swallow when I know we can do something in the playoffs.
“Yeah, I mean, it is. Hindsight is always 20/20. We gave away plenty of points throughout the season, but it is what it is.”