Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Can Ryan Blaney Come Up Big in Must-Win Bristol Cutoff Race?

1. Blaney Winning at Bristol Would Be As Clutch As It Gets

Believe it or not, Ryan Blaney has not been mathematically eliminated from advancing to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round of 12 on points.

Yes, being 27 points out with just the Bristol Night Race less is suboptimal, to say the least. But to paraphrase Dale Jr., it’s Bristol baby, so Clint Bowyer, William Byron and Cole Custer could all get caught up in the same early wreck. Oh, and you’d have to throw Matt DiBenedetto in there too, or Blaney would have to make sure he finishes a few spots ahead of his pseudo-teammate as well.

In other words, Blaney and the No. 12 Ford team are as close to a win or go home situation as there is in racing, with the caveat that instead of actually going home, they’d have to continue on for seven more races while knowing they are no longer in contention for a championship.

There’s no shame in getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs — after all, a quarter of the original postseason field is in that boat each year. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this for Blaney, who started the season by nearly winning the Daytona 500, then racked up six top-five finishes in seven races before his lone win at Talladega.

A mix of bad luck and inconsistent performance made everything else pale in comparison, yet it was the one poor result in that great stretch that was a true microcosm of Blaney’s 2020 season. At the first Bristol race, Blaney led 60 laps and appeared he might have the car to beat before wrecking and finishing dead last in 40th place.

Still, it was that run, as well as a knack for top-10 finishes in his other Bristol visits, that keep hope alive for Blaney and his team. Any victory in the Bristol Night Race is one to remember, but if he can actually pull this one off, he’d enjoy the side benefit of silencing his critics as well.

Teammate Brad Keselowski thinks he can, telling NASCAR.com, “He’s really good at Bristol and he can do that. Don’t think about it, just go win it.”

We’ll see this weekend if he can come up big when the stakes are highest.

2. This Season’s Most Unexpected Twist: Austin Dillon, Title Contender?

A text I got after the Richmond race from one of my friends who is a NASCAR fan simply said, “Is Austin Dillon… good now?”

He sure has been the past two weekends, when he picked up the first back-to-back top fives of his career. His run at Richmond was truly eyebrow-raising, however, since he looked like he was the fastest car on the track on more than one occasion and was able to mix it up with and even pass drivers who generally are used to doing that to him.

It’s not unusual for drivers to catch fire right before or during the playoffs, but someone with zero signs of doing it and no obvious explanation for suddenly improved performance counts as a genuine surprise. A few weeks ago, I’d have assumed Dillon and the No. 3 team would be out by the Round of 12, or perhaps just squeeze into the Round of 8.

Now, who knows? The NBC Sports broadcast team pointed out that he likely has too few playoff points to mount a serious run at the  Championship 4 (even harder this year, as we’ll explore shortly). But it’s worth pointing out that the win that locked him into the playoffs in the first place was at Texas … which happens to be one of the races that get you right to Phoenix with a victory.

It’s actually untrue to say stranger things have happened during the playoff era, and yet the idea of a Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet once again competing for a championship can’t be completely ruled out.

3. Someone Deserving is Probably Going to Be Left Out of the Championship 4

Obviously, everyone’s definition of “deserving” is different. But there’s a big contrast to, say, two years ago, when we knew the Big 3 were going for the crown with a random fourth playoff driver joining them (albeit one who crashed the party by taking said crown in Joey Logano) and what’s unfolding right now.

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are going to be competing for the championship at Phoenix barring absolute and repeated disaster in the Round of 8. That’s as it should be given how they’ve dominated chunks of the regular season. Keselowski isn’t as much of a lock, but appears to be peaking at the right time and now has four wins in 2020.

It’s that fourth spot where things get interesting. Cases can easily be made for Logano and Chase Elliott, the other two multi-time winners. If you value consistently excellent results, then Martin Truex Jr. also merits consideration, even with just a lone race win, as he’s third in both total top fives and total top 10s. And we’ve already discussed the suddenly-surging Dillon.

The intriguing part is that only one of them can make it. That’s assuming no one we’ve left out upsets the apple cart altogether with an unexpected victory or two in the next two rounds, which would only increase the number of drivers with legit grievances of being left out of the title hunt at Phoenix.

That’s probably not going to convince anyone who dislikes the current way NASCAR championships are won to change their minds, but it does add some spice to the next seven weeks.

4. Who Should Richard Petty Motorsports Get to Drive the No. 43 in 2021?

While a ton of digital ink has understandably been spilled trying to deduce where Bubba Wallace is headed next season, the other side of the equation is compelling too. RPM took a step forward in relevance this year if not a huge one in terms of results, and now has to figure out which direction it goes when replacing Wallace.

The flip answer may end up as the real one too: Whoever brings the most sponsorship dollars to the table. In the absence of someone who can effectively keep logos on the hood of the No. 43 Chevy, though, the two most likely approaches are to give a younger driver who is otherwise blocked from getting to the Cup Series level, or tab someone with experience who can hopefully keep RPM on an upward trajectory, however slight.

Maybe there’s a way that the team can have the best of both worlds: Hiring Erik Jones.

Jones would give RPM a driver who has won at the Cup Series level, something that neither Wallace nor other potential replacements like Daniel Suarez can claim. He’s much less controversial than Kyle Larson and infinitely more experienced than Hailie Deegan, both names that have been thrown into the discussion by one of the team’s minority owners recently. And at 24, he’s still young enough that his best days could still be in front of him.

While Jones hasn’t been a sponsorship magnet by any means, he’s slyly personable and definitely could represent any brand with class. He might require a bit more selling on the team’s part, but he’d stabilize the performance of the No. 43 car and possibly keep it moving forward. The King doesn’t need any advice from me on anything, but if he asked, I’d definitely urge him to give That Jones Boy a call.

5. Bristol With Limited Fans Will Be Weird… But Also Not

On one hand, the Bristol Night Race with only a limited amount of fans allowed in the stands will be the most surreal sight yet during this pandemic-affected season. The Last Great Colosseum was once the stuff of legend, not just selling out race after race but also generating lengthy waiting lists just to have a chance to attend in person.

With the general decline in at-track attendance over the last decade and a half, those days are long gone, but it feels right for there to be at least some people in the stands this coming weekend. That’s why it’s somewhat heartening to learn that Bristol’s socially distanced ticket capacity for the Night Race is sold out, with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 fans expected on Saturday night.

At a time when any bit of normalcy helps, seeing fans at Bristol should certainly help lift some spirits.

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Just an FYI, I am currently in the clutches of Hurricane Sally and as slow as she is moving, she may impact the race this weekend. Just something to keep in mind…

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