When the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs began Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway, the sport’s pundits didn’t consider Ryan Blaney a threat to make it to the championship round. He entered the playoffs with only one victory on the season, 12th in the points and with only eight playoff points.
Who's laughing now, as Blaney will join Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron with a one-in-four chance to win the Cup Championship next week at Phoenix.
Blaney and his team had struggled through the summer, failing to produce a top-five finish after the Coca-Cola 600 victory on Memorial Day weekend. He began the playoffs with a ninth-place finish at Darlington, but still no one gave Blaney a chance at advancing. However, he did, and Blaney, crew chief Jonathan Hassler and Team Penske vice chairman Walt Czarnecki pointed to the Texas race, which began the Round of 12, as the race that turned everything around for the team. Czarnecki says that’s when he saw a momentum change in the organization, especially with its 1.5-mile program which Hassler said they struggled with for the “first half, first two-thirds of the year.”
“It was a top-five car, potentially a race-winning car,” Czarnecki says about the Texas race in late September. “I think we were running third at the time. We had a self-inflicted speeding penalty that set him back, (but) we saw the performance of the car, the performance of the crew.”
Blaney points to the fact the team was able to hold its track position at Texas as a “big turning point.”
“It was a big confidence boost,” he says. “It set us on the right track.”
The week after Texas, Blaney won at Talladega, securing him a berth in the Round of 8. He started that round, which determines the championship four, with a sixth at Las Vegas. Next came a second at Homestead when Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. stumbled with mechanical issues in their Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. He entered Martinsville 10 points above the cutline.
From the beginning of Sunday’s Xfinity 500 it was evident Blaney and Hamlin had the cars to beat. The two often raced side-by-side in the event, sometimes exchanging sheet metal. When the checkered flag waved, Blaney had led four times for 145 laps, including the final 23. He had his third victory this season, and second in the playoffs, advancing into the championship four with Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron.
Denny Hamlin's Fate Sealed at Homestead
After talking with team owner Joe Gibbs, Denny Hamlin calmly walked over to a throng of media waiting for him on pit road.
The Toyota driver had just finished third in Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway and for the second straight year had failed to advance into the championship four. Last year, it was Ross Chastain’s historical video game move that’s become known as the “Hail Melon” that kept him from the title round. This year, Hamlin points to a broken power steering belt at Homestead-Miami Speedway the previous weekend that sent him into the wall and to a 30th-place finish as the culprit.
“Ultimately, our fate was sealed when that car’s steering belt came off last week,” said Hamlin, who entered Sunday’s Martinsville race 17 points below the cutline.
Hamlin readily admitted he possessed the second-best car Sunday at the tough Martinsville short track even though he was the top lap leader, setting the pace on four occasions for 156 of the 500 laps.
“If you told me I was guaranteed to have the second-best car, I would have taken it, finished in the top three in all of the stages,” Hamlin says. “I wouldn’t do anything different. There’s nothing I could have done I feel like through these playoffs to be any different. On a day when we had to have a phenomenal day, we did. It wasn’t just quite good enough because we were in such a hole last week.”
Throughout the race, Hamlin and Blaney often dueled for the lead, occasionally racing side-by-side and exchanging sheet metal.
“Honestly, it was a blast racing with Blaney,” Hamlin says. “The passing was tough today, but at least we could show out for a few laps.”
NASCAR Cup Series Race - Xfinity 500
1. (11) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 500.
2. (12) Aric Almirola, Ford, 500.
3. (4) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 500.
4. (3) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 500.
5. (15) Joey Logano, Ford, 500.
6. (5) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 500.
7. (7) Christopher Bell (P), Toyota, 500.
8. (18) Chris Buescher (P), Ford, 500.
9. (21) Austin Cindric, Ford, 500.
10. (17) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 500.
11. (6) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 500.
12. (1) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 500.
13. (16) William Byron (P), Chevrolet, 499.
14. (13) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 499.
15. (28) Harrison Burton, Ford, 499.
16. (8) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 499.
17. (14) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 499.
18. (2) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 499.
19. (20) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 499.
20. (9) Ryan Preece, Ford, 499.
21. (29) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 499.
22. (30) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 499.
23. (26) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 499.
24. (34) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 499.
25. (23) Michael McDowell, Ford, 499.
26. (19) Tyler Reddick (P), Toyota, 498.
27. (31) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 498.
28. (25) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 498.
29. (33) Ryan Newman(i), Ford, 497.
30. (24) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 497.
31. (32) Carson Hocevar(i), Chevrolet, 496.
32. (22) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 496.
33. (10) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 306.
34. (27) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, DVP, 274.
35. (35) JJ Yeley(i), Ford, Accident, 271.
36. (36) BJ McLeod(i), Chevrolet, Overheating, 147.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 75.244 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 29 Mins, 43 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.899 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 7 for 61 laps.
Lead Changes: 12 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Truex Jr. (P) 1-47;D. Hamlin (P) 48-193;R. Blaney (P) 194-218;D. Hamlin (P) 219-226;R. Blaney (P) 227-228;D. Hamlin (P) 229;R. Blaney (P) 230-324;D. Hamlin (P) 325;C. Elliott (P) 326-331;C. LaJoie 332-334;C. Elliott (P) 335-411;A. Almirola 412-477;R. Blaney (P) 478-500.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Denny Hamlin (P) 4 times for 156 laps; Ryan Blaney (P) 4 times for 145 laps; Chase Elliott (P) 2 times for 83 laps; Aric Almirola 1 time for 66 laps; Martin Truex Jr. (P) 1 time for 47 laps; Corey LaJoie 1 time for 3 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 11,12,19,14,6,20,54,41,22,4
Stage #2 Top Ten: 12,11,14,22,6,54,41,38,4,20