Ryan Blaney had been having a relatively quiet NASCAR Cup postseason, advancing to the Round of 12 without fanfare.
Then the final stage of Sunday’s (Sept. 24) Texas Motor Speedway race happened.
The Team Penske driver had placed in the top 10 of the first two stages – seventh and fourth. But on a lap 211 pit stop, Blaney was caught for speeding.
Within 42 laps of restarting in the back of the field, Blaney’s day ended in a six-car pileup on the frontstretch. After finishes of ninth, 12th and 22nd in the first round, he left Texas with a 28th-place finish.
To top it off, he’s now 11th on the playoff grid, 11 points behind the cutoff for the Round of 8.
“Honestly, it’s hard,” Blaney told media on Wednesday (Sept. 27). “I was bummed out, but it’s 100% my fault that I sped on pit road and put us back in the pack, and then the snowball effect you get in a wreck. So it’s like, ‘Man, if we didn’t speed, obviously this would have happened, this would have happened, and this wouldn’t have happened.’”
However, Blaney was “shocked” when he realized he was only 11 points out of advancing.
“I thought I was gonna be way more out of it,” Blaney said. “So just understanding that you’re gonna have these moments and it’s kind of how you respond to them and how you rebound after a bad week and realize you still have two weeks to make it up.
Luckily for Blaney, one of those two chances is at Talladega Superspeedway.
The fraternity of drivers whose name could be used in the same sentence as “luckily” and “Talladega” is a small but distinguished one.
A lot of the membership includes current and former Penske drivers.
If anyone could call the 2.66-mile superspeedway “reliable” for them, it’s Blaney.
The veteran of 300 Cup Series starts enters Sunday’s YellaWood 500 boasting runner-up finishes in the last two visits to Talladega. In this race last year he led 31 laps, including the penultimate one, before losing to race winner Chase Elliott.
Back in April, he led a race-high 47 laps, essentially alternating the lead with others for 60 laps until Kyle Busch led two of the last three laps to win.
Leading the most laps has not resulted in a race winner at Talladega since 2020. That’s when, you guessed it, Blaney did so in the spring after leading 43 laps. It was his second consecutive victory.
The leader at the white flag also has not won the last six Talladega races.
What’s the patience level like for a driver trying to make their way to front?
“I think you kind of just understand whatever situation you’re in,” Blaney said. “Whether you’re the leader coming down to the end, whether you’re in the top couple rows, if it’s side-by-side, and then I think if you’re 10th on back your mindset changes a little bit to where you have to be more aggressive to try to get to the front, but it’s all about positioning.”
Looking back on the last two Talladega trips, Blaney believes his No. 12 team did a good job of taking advantage of a “good strategy day” where they could “kind of establish yourself up front, your car is fast enough to where you can lead a lane well or you can push well to try to move a lane.”
That’s not happening if you’re not in the first three rows, Blaney noted.
“Those are the only three cars that matter.”
To play on a quote from a really bad movie with “Talladega” in its title, if you’re not first, second or third, you might as well be last.
“If you’re fourth on back, your job is just to stay as tight as you can,” Blaney continued. “You don’t want to be shoving on the guy in third and push him through second and first and cause a wreck. You see that all the time, but your sense of urgency definitely changes with wherever you’re at. I’ve always been most comfortable leading these races coming down to the end.”
Looking back at the spring, Blaney admitted he “probably” went too soon on the last lap, when he was running second to Bubba Wallace into turn 1. Contact between them started a chain reaction and Busch took the checkered flag.
“It’s hard not to take those runs if you have them and try to establish yourself in the lead in case there is a wreck and you want to be leading,” Blaney said. “It is hard to kind of discipline yourself sometimes when you want to go, but I feel like patience pays off a lot at those racetracks, especially throughout the race.”
Blaney doesn’t view the Talladega playoff race as being much crazier than its sister race in the spring. He also doesn’t believe his competitors throw as many “haymakers” in attempts to win as they do in the regular season finale at Daytona.
However, even though he’s among the four drivers below the cutline, Blaney doesn’t seem to be sweating his place with two races left in the Round of 8.
He’s looking on the bright side for now.
“We don’t have to go win Talladega,” Blaney said. “We’re not in that spot.”
2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com.
The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.
You can email him at email@example.com.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.