Every postseason has its surprises, be it in those who are eliminated or advance. Many were quick to label Ryan Blaney the first surprise elimination of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, but that would be incorrect.
It wasn’t a surprise; it was more of a disappointment – a second-half of the season letdown.
In the three races of the Round of 16, Blaney’s best finish was a 13th on Saturday night at Bristol. Not only did he fail to lead a lap at Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol, but he did not finish on the lead lap in any of those three races, either. Add in the loss of crew chief Todd Gordon and 10 points for an inspection infraction before the green flag flew at Darlington, and elimination was inevitable.
“I’m upset about it. I don’t want to be knocked out with seven races to go and not be able to run for a championship,” said Blaney. “I’m not very excited about that, but there’s a lot of things we could have cleaned up as a group together, myself included, and we just didn’t perform. We didn’t perform in the first round like we needed to to transfer, and that’s something you’ll have. We just needed to step up, and we just had too many issues, but we still have seven races left.
“Yeah, it sucks that you’re not able to run for it, but I’m just disappointed – not really disappointed. It’s kind of hard to put into words. I wish we all had a better three races as a team. I know this team can have great races, and it’s a shame we missed that a little bit.”
The writing was on the wall. A strong start to the season where multiple wins seemed possible gave way to a summer slump that never went away. Blaney and the No. 12 team were inches away from a Daytona 500 victory, were leading at Las Vegas when a caution flew late, corded a tire while second at Fontana, crashed from second at Bristol, and was cursed by another ill-time caution in Texas.
By Texas – the 18th race of the season – Blaney had led 497 laps and was second in the point standings. Then came the inconsistency. In the eight races leading into the postseason, Blaney earned just two top-10 finishes.
What happened? How did this team, who are working together for the first time following the three-team swap team owner Roger Penske made during the offseason, go from coming out of the gate looking like instant contenders to instantly eliminated?
“I’m not sure,” said Blaney after Bristol. “I thought we still had decent speed maybe even a couple of months ago; I don’t know. Things haven’t really fallen into place, and maybe our speed is not quite there. I’d love to tell you if I knew what it was, we would try to fix it, but I just think it was some tough racetracks that came around for us and not stepping up to the occasion as a group, me as a driver for sure included. I’d love to tell you.
“I don’t think we’ve lost all of our speed. I think at times we show a lot of speed, maybe it’s not as consistent as what it was earlier in the first half of the year, but I still think it’s there. We just have to find it here again for the last seven.”
With so many missed opportunities and mistakes, Blaney’s elimination can’t be called a surprise. The upside is the potential is there for this group to grow and be better. In the long run, the pairing of Gordon and Blaney will be more successful than not, and it just a mirage the success was going to quickly come right from the get-go.
“Sometimes, you have rough patches as a team, but sometimes things are really clicking really well, and your car is fast, and things are working out for you. We had that the first half of the year,” said Blaney. “I’d like to see us get back to that consistent speed we were showing the first half of the year, first two-thirds of the year, and I’m sure we’ll be able to find that. We’ll work really hard, Todd and me and everybody, to find that for the last seven.”