Ryan Blaney has tried not once, not twice, but four previous times to advance out of the Round of 8, only to be left disappointed at the end of the final elimination race.
It didn’t happen in 2017 or 2019. Not even in 2021, when Blaney had only a one-point deficit going into the final race of the round. And it was more of the same last year when teammate Joey Logano made the championship race and went on to win the title.
Perhaps the difference for Blaney in his fifth attempt is he’s not the one doing the chasing. For the first time in his postseason career, Blaney goes into the elimination race at Martinsville Speedway (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC) above the cutline and holding the spot four other drivers are aiming for.
Blaney is 10 points above the cutline. Tyler Reddick is the first driver behind him, and then it’s the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., who are both 17 points out of a transfer spot. Chris Buescher is facing a likely must-win situation.
“I personally feel fairly decent about it,” Blaney said of Martinsville Speedway and his six top-10 finishes in the last nine races there. “We’ve run pretty good there in the past; it’s nice to have run good at places that you’re going to (again), but I don’t think you can fully rely on that. Things change. We have a different tire going into this weekend. The track changes. The cars change. So, it’s important that you utilize the things you’ve learned in the past that has made you good, but I don’t think you can put all your chips into that basket.”
Blaney finished seventh at Martinsville Speedway in the spring. However that was behind both Hamlin and Truex, and Blaney did not score any stage points after starting 31st.
“You have to understand that you have to continue to evolve and learn,” he continued. “That’s from a driver’s side and a setup side. How you unload. What have we learned this year as well at short tracks that maybe we can apply that’s made us better? Maybe we’ve done some stuff at short tracks that was worse. You just learn that stuff, and you have to be ready to do different things to be competitive.
“Hopefully, we can put together a good race like we have the last couple of weeks and it works out for us. But everyone’s heads are up high right now and (we) understand that you’re not in a comfortable spot whatsoever if you haven’t won. You still have to go execute and run a good race, and hopefully, we can go do there.”
Blaney was 22 points below the cutline going into the final elimination race of this round in 2017. It was 23 points in 2019, one point in 2021 and last season, it was 18. He has never won at Martinsville Speedway.
It’s been a career round for Blaney. At the start of the round, Blaney was 10 points below the cutline, but he lost points even with a sixth-place finish in the first race at Las Vegas. By scoring 53 of a potential 60 points at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finishing second, Blaney made it a 27-point swing.
It can all go away quickly. Blaney, however, will not commit his Team Penske group to an offense or defense mentality for Sunday.
“That’s hard to say, it’s all situational,” Blaney said. “What spot are you in when you’re coming down to these stages, can you grab points? Is there a late caution then you have to make a tough decision: do you flip it? Do you say out? What’s everyone doing around you? You have all these plans throughout the week that Jonathan [Hassler] and I talk about of what we want to utilize, what’s important, what might happen in this situation. Like 90% of the time, those plans don’t come true.
“You have to be able to improvise on the fly and understand how to make these calls quickly, and maybe it’s not part of your plan. But you have to be able to do that and adjust. I think that’s situational. There are times you’re going to have to play offense. There are times you’re going to have to play defense. That just depends on how cautions fall, pit cycles, what spot you’re in. So, you have to be open to it all.”