DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ryan Blaney was ready for something cold. His need to refresh almost stemmed less from the searing late-afternoon Florida heat that replaced the clouds and rain from earlier Sunday at Daytona International Speedway than it did from reaching the dramatic end of a nerve-jangling day on the edge of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs picture.
At the end, a scant three points made the difference. Blaney drove a heavily damaged No. 12 Team Penske Ford to clinch the final postseason berth in Sunday’s rain-plagued Coke Zero Sugar 400, edging out former series champ Martin Truex Jr. for the 16th spot. Blaney soldiered on after a Stage 1 crash, sweated through a 3½-hour weather delay — when he sat on the outside of the provisional playoff grid, with the real threat of storms ending the race early — and managed to seal his playoff fate, improbably, with a 15th-place finish that came six laps down.
“I want to go home and crack open a beer and relax a little bit because that was a stressful day,” Blaney said on pit road post-race. “That’s a long weekend, honestly, of no qualifying, not getting in the car, you know, we don’t race last night, wait around today after you know you get wrecked and then you have a three-hour rain delay. Just definitely mentally drained, so, be nice to relax a little bit.”
Austin Dillon punched his playoff ticket with a rousing roll to his first victory of the year in Sunday’s regular-season finale. That clinched berth by a new winner — which was in limbo all the way to the wire — left just one spot remaining for a playoff qualifier on the basis of points between Blaney and Truex.
A pair of wild 15-point swings helped to decide it. Truex gained the upper hand early, netting 15 stage points to narrow the gap to Blaney on the bubble. Masterful teamwork from his Toyota mates — both in the aerodynamic draft and in pit-road timing — helped the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing driver cash in.
Blaney, meanwhile, was snared in a Lap 31 stack-up that threatened to derail his hopes. Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin knotted up the low lane, and Blaney was among those piling in. His No. 12 Mustang sustained severe right-front damage, which his Team Penske crew finessed the rest of the way to at least keep him at the required minimum pace for the 2.5-mile track. That factor kept his playoff bid intact and drew effusive praise from the 28-year-old driver at the end.
“I shook all those guys’ hands and tell them good job and way to stick with it,” Blaney said. “They did a hell of a job fixing that thing. I mean, it was destroyed. I’ll be honest with you. I mean, I got done wrecking and the wheel was 180 degrees turned around and was not driving, the right-front was stopped. They did a great job of fixing it and making it to where it was halfway decent enough to where we could keep running and make minimum speed. So that’s just, thanked all those guys for sticking with us. They were as big a part of this as I was, keeping their head in the game.”
Truex’s time to capitalize was short-lived. After Stage 2, his No. 19 crew told him that he was just 10 points back based on his stage-point earnings; running second with Blaney mired in 34th gave him a sizable cushion. A Lap 102 crash, however, called Truex’s number and left him with his own ground to gain. When storms triggered a multi-car crash and red-flagged the event, Truex had picked his way to seventh, with Blaney still scored 29th and provisionally out of the playoff hunt.
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The interminable waiting game to see if the race would be ruled official 21 laps short of the 160-lap distance finally ended after extensive track-drying. Instead of fretting needlessly, Blaney waited out the delay on top of the No. 12 pit box, eventually heading back to his motorcoach, changing clothes and having an early dinner while watching some golf.
“Like I said, there’s just nothing you can do,” Blaney said. “I mean, there’s no … I’ve got in my head there’s no use of sitting there pulling your hair out over it. It’s not in your control. You can only just go out there and hope it gets back racing. I mean, I fully accepted the fact that it could downpour at any moment and we’d be out. You’ve just got to accept those things and know that you have no control over it. So no point in stressing yourself out over that. You just try to relax and hope for the best.”
Blaney stood to gain back some of the deficit, even as the few remaining cars sat idle on pit road through the wet weather. He was poised to make up points by passing 10 cars that were scored ahead of him but out of the race after the multi-car snarl at the front of the pack.
After dispatching those sidelined competitors, Blaney picked up two more spots — one when Jones retired the No. 43 on Lap 154, then another when Cole Custer’s No. 41 slowed with a shredded right-front tire on the next lap.
Truex’s slide accelerated Blaney’s rise. “There’s just nothing I can do,” Truex told the No. 19 team over the radio after he lost crucial positions, falling from fifth to ninth as a pack led by David Ragan scooted by.
Up front, Dillon ensured that the playoff grid wouldn’t have room for both Blaney and Truex. Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric gamely fought hard to give his Penske teammate insurance and make it a season sweep at the World Center of Racing, but a bump from Dillon’s No. 3 Chevy on Lap 158 moved the rookie aside and narrowed the playoff needle.
Dillon chugged to the finish with teammate Tyler Reddick pushing him home. Eighth for Truex was not enough, and he missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“I mean, I knew where I had to finish if a new winner was gonna win,” said Truex, who noted the No. 19’s missing right-front fender and a left-rear body panel that produced a parachute effect. “And I just didn’t have enough speed to stay in that position. It was as simple as that.”
Instead, Blaney made his way into the postseason field for the sixth consecutive year as the only non-winner this season, surviving all the chaos and all those waits to earn that decompression time with a celebratory swig.
“We’ve had a good year — a really good year, just the wins haven’t come. That’s what hasn’t made it a great year,” Blaney said. “So that would have definitely stunk, but you know, you understand the playoff format, you understand you need to win races, and we just haven’t been able to accomplish that. So it definitely would have been a bummer, but fortunately it worked out for us and we were able to make it happen.”