How Ryan Blaney Went from Brink of Elimination to Cusp of NASCAR Championship 4

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How Blaney Made it to Cusp of Championship 4Sean Gardner - Getty Images
  • Based on points, William Byron and Ryan Blaney go into Martinsville still championship-eligible, Byron by a fairly comfortable 30 points and Blaney a tenuous 10.

  • Round of 8 race winners Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have qualified for the Championship 4 at Phoenix.

  • Blaney's second-place finish last weekend at Homestead-Miami took him from 17 below to cutline to plus-10 with only this week's race at Martinsville remaining before the cutoff.

It’s been an interesting and eventful couple of weeks for NASCAR championship hopeful Ryan Blaney of Team Penske. It promises to get more interesting and maybe more eventful this weekend in the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway in southern Virginia.

Sunday afternoon’s 500-lap race at the half-mile “paperclip” track is the final Cup Series stop before the Nov. 5 Championship Finale near Phoenix. Only four of the original 16 Playoff drivers will be eligible for the Cup after this weekend, and Blaney is among them.

With their recent victories at Las Vegas and Homestead, respectively, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell are assured of advancing to the championship race. Based on points, William Byron and Blaney go into Martinsville still championship-eligible, Byron by a fairly comfortable 30 points and Blaney a tenuous 10. Tyler Reddick is 10 below the line, with Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin minus-17. Chris Buescher is a nearly hopeless 43 points behind.

Considering what Blaney has endured lately, his 10-point cushion is a godsend. When his sixth-place finish at Las Vegas was disqualified two weeks ago, he fell to last on the race rundown sheet and last among the eight drivers still in the championship hunt. He suddenly found himself a daunting 56 points below the cutline with only Homestead and Martinsville remaining in Round 3.

At the time, NASCAR ruled that the left-front shock on Blaney’s No. 12 Ford Mustang did not meet the overall specified length. Officials pointed to Section of the Rule Book, which lists the minimum extended damper lengths for each shock.

About 24 hours later—after several questions arose and a more detailed inspection was done—NASCAR called off the disqualification. The unusual reversal, according to a NASCAR statement, came when officials discovered that the damper template used for inspection of the shock was faulty.

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Ryan Blaney was disqualified at Las Vegas, but saw his penalty rescinded. That kept his Playoff hopes alive.Sean Gardner - Getty Images

“We got a little bit of information,” Cup Series director Brad Moran said by way of explanation. “We brought all the shocks back. We brought the damper template back and we brought all the tools back. We started going through all of our weekend reports, doing our due diligence to make sure that there was nothing missed.

“Unfortunately, something came up. One thing led to another and as we did all of our due diligence and dug into all the details... we realized that the damper plate at some point was not consistent throughout the entire weekend, which is obviously on us. We’ll own what we have to do. The teams step up during the Playoffs. We need to do the same.”

The reinstatement returned Blaney to sixth on the rundown, gave back 39 points, and moved him from eighth to seventh in the Playoff standings. More importantly, it reduced his deficit from 59 points below the cutline to a manageable minus-17. His second-place last weekend at Homestead-Miami took him from 17 below to cutline to plus-10 with only Martinsville remaining.

The encouraging news for Blaney/Penske fans is that he’s the most successful active driver at Martinsville, averaging a 9.5 finish in 15 career starts. He’s never won there, but has seven top-5 finishes, nine top-10s, and 13 lead-lap finishes in 15 starts. Twice each he’s been second, third, and fourth, and has a fifth, seventh, and eighth there. Dating back to its 1949 opening, he’s the track’s sixth most-successful driver.

There might have been times this season when Blaney and crew chief Jonathan Hassler worried about making the Playoffs, much less advancing to the Phoenix finale. Their victory in the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte made them Playoff-eligible, but most of their early-season performance had been inconsistent at best. The team’s turnaround has been impressive.

“It’s no secret we struggled a little bit in the summer months, not being where we wanted to be, and even before the start of the playoffs we were struggling a little bit trying to find speed,” Blaney said early this week. “We’ve put our heads down and really put together a good eight weeks to put us in this position, especially the last two weeks at Miami and Vegas. We’ve done an absolutely amazing job of finding the speed that we need and executing amazing races. (Blaney has averaged an 11.5 finish in the first eight Playoff races, including a Talladega victory).

“This group is always working to get better; they don’t get down or upset. Even when we’re not running very well, they go to work and find ways to be better. That’s a group you want to be part of. I’m really happy to be a part of this group with that mindset. Now, we just have to go and do it again this weekend, execute like we have the last two weeks, and give us a shot to get to Phoenix.”

To hear Blaney tell it, going to Martinsville 10 points up isn’t much different than being 17 down. Former champions and multi-time Martinsville winners Truex Jr. and Hamlin must be considered co-favorites with Larson in the 500-lap, full-contact race. Reddick is a manageable 10 below, but isn’t considered a strong candidate to win on Sunday.

“I don’t really look at (the points) any differently,” he said. “It’s nice to be in that spot – above instead of clawing your way in. But you’re still gonna have to fight. You can’t get relaxed unless you’re the 20 (Bell) or the 5 (Larson). You still have a job to do and you still have to work hard and whether you’re below or above you still have to have the mindset of, ‘hey, we still have to go do an amazing job because I know other jobs are gonna do an amazing job as well, so we have to be on that level.’

“It’s nice to be above instead of the opposite, but you still have a very tough job to do and you have to go do your job.”

Based on its recent performances—1st, 12th, 6th, and 2nd—Team Penske should be just fine come Sunday night.