Ryan Blaney has been here before.
“Here” is the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and the Round of 8. Here being Martinsville Speedway and the last elimination race before the championship showdown. But Blaney has never been here with as good a shot as he does Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, NBC) at advancing to the Championship 4 for the first time. Blaney and the No. 12 group from Team Penske are the first ones below the cutline by just one point.
“It’s definitely the best position we’ve been in as far as points to the cutoff line in this Round of 8,” Blaney acknowledged. “We did a really good job in the regular season and throughout the playoffs to put us in this position. Obviously, I’d like to be 30 points ahead of the cutoff line like we were looking at being before Kansas when we got knocked out of that. But we still have a good shot at it; it could be worse.
“Going to Martinsville, that’s been a great track for us the past three years, and it’s been unfortunate we haven’t been able to close the deal on it. It’s almost like a storybook thing if you think about it, because I feel like we’ve given the last three Martinsville races away. I feel like we’ve had the best car in the last three and didn’t really get a shot to race for it at the end with the penalties and things like that. So, it’s like, well, now it’s time to show up. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
Second on the playoff grid going into last weekend’s race at Kansas, it appeared Blaney was going to add to his advantage on the cutline before a crash with 44 laps to go. Contact from Austin Dillon, who got loose underneath Blaney in Turn 2, sent Blaney’s Ford into the outside wall and to an early exit.
Blaney views himself as one of five drivers going for one spot. While Kyle Larson is the only driver locked into the Championship 4, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin are more than 30 points above the cutline to give themselves breathing room toward advancing. Bagging points through the first two stages will be critical.
“The 11 [Hamlin] and 9 [Elliott] can have issues, but that’s a lot of points,” said Blaney. “but you never know. There is going to be really exciting racing between the five of our cars. There are four of us who can get in on points pretty easily, so I think there’s no better track for it.”
Certainly not for Blaney, as he alluded to. Despite what the result sheet says, the Virginia paperclip is one of Blaney’s best tracks, and Blaney has become one of those mentioned when handicapping the favorites.
Entering the Xfinity 500, Blaney has four top-five finishes in the last five Martinsville races with 227 laps led. Pit road penalties and untimely cautions have kept him from victory lane.
Blaney won’t worry about the competition or the playoff picture through most of Sunday’s race. Points racing through the first two stages will be the primary plan, but he doesn’t want to get too distracted by the situation other than maybe an update from crew chief Todd Gordon (pictured at left, top, with Blaney) when necessary. Blaney also wouldn’t be surprised if it comes down to one of the playoff drivers winning the race.
And if it’s Blaney who accomplishes that to advance, it will have cleared one last hurdle he’s yet to in the Cup Series.
“We’ve been to the Round of 8 — this is the third time — and just haven’t been able to make it to the championship race yet,” he said. “So yeah, I think that’s a big hurdle for us, or myself personally. It would be a great accomplishment to be able to do, and not only for myself but everybody working on the 12 car and to give Todd a shot to run for a championship in his last season. That is the next step — trying to get to the Championship 4 and give yourself a shot to race for one.”