A few months ago, Ryan Blaney was on a 59-race winless streak in the NASCAR Cup Series. This weekend, he’s racing for the championship.
“Obviously, you want to win all year,” Blaney told Road & Track. “But it's about peaking at the right time. We struggled through the summer. We didn't have the pace that we needed to compete for the wins throughout the middle part of the year.
“But we just went to work. We didn't get down. We understood that we needed to get better, and we did.”
Blaney broke his winless streak in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600, in May. It was his eighth-career win and first since 2021, and it automatically qualified him for the Cup Series playoffs—a 10-race elimination bracket that decides the champion.
The playoffs consist of four rounds. The first three rounds have three races each, and after each round, four drivers get eliminated. The remaining drivers undergo a points reset with bonus points for wins, then the grind begins again. Blaney only had one win coming into this year’s playoffs, putting him on the back foot.
“We had to come from behind,” Blaney said. “We came into the round of 16, and we were in an alright spot. But going into the round of 12, we were toward the bottom. Going into the round of eight, we were at the bottom.
“I think that was a good challenge. We understood: ‘Hey, we have to dig really deep to get to where we need to be.’ I think that showed the fight in our group. Coming from behind, we didn't act like we had nothing to lose, because you have a lot to lose. I mean, you're running for your whole season. We had to play catch up, and we did.”
The playoffs all culminate in the “Championship Four”: four drivers racing for the title at the mile-long Phoenix Raceway oval. The highest finisher among those drivers in the Phoenix race wins the title, and they have to do it while navigating more than 30 non-playoff cars.
This is Blaney’s first time in the Cup Series’ Championship Four, and he made it by virtue of winning at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway oval last weekend.
“We didn't necessarily dominate [Martinsville], but we ran really, really good all day,” Blaney said. “I think having that confidence from running so well the week prior, it's like: ‘Alright, our cars are where they need to be.’ We're obviously going to use what we learned from Phoenix last year, and the spring race this year. It's been a good track for us.
"We feel great in our camp. But I mean, everyone has their confidence level up. All the other playoff cars, all the other groups, their confidence is high too, because they're in the show.”
Three of the final four drivers—Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and Blaney—won a race in the penultimate round of the playoffs. The fourth, William Byron, is the winningest driver this year. Blaney was the last driver to win his way in, and it ended a chaotic playoff round for him.
Blaney started the round 10 points below the infamous “cut line,” which determines who gets eliminated. He finished sixth in the first race of the round at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which Larson won, but still lost points to the cut line. He left Vegas down 17.
NASCAR disqualified Blaney from the Vegas race soon after it ended, taking away the points he scored and saying his left-front shock “did not meet the overall specified length outlined in the NASCAR rule book.” A win automatically qualifies a driver for the next round, and to make the Championship Four, Blaney effectively had to win.
The next day, NASCAR rescinded the disqualification. There was an issue with the template used to inspect Blaney’s car, and he got all of his points back.
“Marcos [Castro, the shock technician] was more confused, I think, than anything,” Blaney said. “He was confident in it, and I think he was more stressed out than anybody because that's his job. It put his mind at ease when it turned out the way it should.”
Blaney rallied back at the second race of the round, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and left 10 points above the cut line. He wasn’t in a must-win situation in the round’s final race at Martinsville, but he won anyway.
“I don't think we had a mindset change from when we were 10 out to start Vegas, then we were even more out to start Homestead, then going into Martinsville being positive,” Blaney said. “We just put our heads down: ‘Hey, let's just go do the job I know we can do. Everyone perform to the best of their ability, and whatever happens, happens.’
“I think that's a good mindset. Don't put any added pressure on yourself. There's already enough pressure for everybody to perform.”
Blaney is known for level-headedness, perhaps because he grew up in a family of well-known dirt-track and sprint-car racers. His father, Dave Blaney, ran in the Cup Series for more than 15 years but never won a race, and his family owns a track called Sharon Speedway in Ohio.
Blaney speaks with a calm tone, even when he’s on the brink of tears after snapping a long winless streak, and sometimes it’s hard to get a read on his personality on TV alone. But off track, he dresses as Princess Leia for Halloween and could have a career as a vocalist for a metal band.
“Everyone says I'm cool and relaxed the whole time,” Blaney said. “But you're going to have ups and downs throughout the playoffs. Not every race is going to be great. There are moments you're going to get fired up.
“It’s the reaction after those moments, I think, that makes a good team great. This group is great at that. They don't pout and get upset that we're not running good. We had a good three weeks in the Round of Eight, taking out the whole 24 hours after Vegas—the shock issue. There were little ups and downs, but I really don't think that affected our group that much.”
Blaney qualified for the championship race at the last possible moment, while two of his competitors, Larson and Bell, qualified early. The other day, he thought: “Man, would you rather win Vegas and be chilling for two weeks, focused only on Phoenix? Or would you rather go out, win Martinsville, and boom, you carry momentum into the next week?”
“I really don't know,” Blaney said. “I think the prep time if you win Vegas is good, but at the end of the day, we're already prepping a Phoenix car. I think carrying momentum from winning the week prior is huge on confidence for everybody. It's easy for me to say because we're in that spot, but I think momentum's big in this game, and we definitely have it.”
Modern NASCAR championships aren’t a cumulation of points across the season, like they are in other racing series. They’re a test of who can survive the season, thrive in the playoffs, and win when it counts. Blaney thinks to do that, you have to run well every week.
“People ask all the time: ‘Does your team prep differently for the playoffs than you normally would?’” Blaney said. “No. You prep 110 percent every week, no matter what it is—if it's the first race or the last race. They're all important, and you always want to win every week.
“I think Sunday morning is going to feel a bit different, understanding: 'Hey, this is on the line. Three hours from now, we could either be champions or we could be losers.’ But this is just racing. It's a big circle, when you’re at top and when you're on the bottom. [The team] did the work. We got better, and we're definitely where we need to be at the perfect time of the year.”
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