Perhaps no other driver can attest to how much more difficult the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs can get than Ryan Blaney.
Blaney has been here before. The Team Penske driver has been in the playoffs, and he’s been in the Round of 8. But this third round — the precursor to the final Championship 4 — is where Blaney’s journey has come to an end three times before.
Sunday in Las Vegas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he begins another quest to get over the hump.
“It’s just tough,” Blaney said of the round. “I thought we did a great job last year of having a really good shot of making Phoenix and it just didn’t work out. I got caught up in a wreck at Kansas and put us in a box going into Martinsville. Not really a box, but we had to perform well, and we didn’t do that.”
One point separated Blaney from a championship spot a year ago going into Martinsville. But an ill-handling car and a long day around the paperclip resulted in him being eliminated, left on the outside by 20 points.
“It’s just a tough round; just tough to be consistent,” Blaney said. “Obviously, this year we haven’t racked up as many bonus points as I would have liked too, like the No. 9 [Chase Elliott] was able to do in the regular season and in the playoffs — to rack up some playoff points to [have] a good cushion. I feel like it’s kind of a multiple of that and the competition is tough, and you can’t have any mistakes. I would really like to break that streak of finally being able to make it to the Championship 4 this year.”
The highest Blaney and the No. 12 team has finished in points is seventh. Those came in the three seasons after he was eliminated in this round.
Two of the three races in the Round of 8 this year have changed — Las Vegas kicks things off, and then the series visits another intermediate at Homestead-Miami. Martinsville is still the final chance for drivers to earn their spot in the finale with a shot at the big prize.
While the round layout might be different, Blaney doesn’t expect it to change much. He believes drivers understand this round and how there is little to no room for error.
“At the end of the day, it’s a matter of trying to figure out how to succeed and perform well at these places,” he said. “Continue to be consistent and try to win.”
A win for the Penske driver would come at no better time. Not only in finally putting a notch in that column for the season but getting him to the place he’s seen in front of him many times before but has never experienced.
“You have to try to stay mentally strong. That’s the only thing you can do,” Blaney said. “It’s easy to get frustrated because you know your chance is right here. Every little position and spot matters, and you have gotten almost to the main goal. So, it can get frustrating, and it’s easy to lose focus. But I think at the end of the day, you have to remain calm and just try to approach each race with a clear mind of, ‘Here is the goal, let’s do the best we can. If we have an issue, how do we overcome it?’
“I feel like we’ve done that pretty well this year. You don’t want to have issues, but I think it shows mental toughness if you can put that in the back of your head and get past it and focus forward. So it’s just a really tough round for drivers, pit crew — everybody. It’s very, very hard. Pressure builds. It’s whoever rises to the occasion and doesn’t feel that pressure. I feel like they go out there and perform and do their job, and it gives you a shot at Phoenix.”