As the NASCAR Cup Series charges through the playoffs, several key storylines have followed many of the title contenders.
For Ryan Blaney, his whirlwind week of emotion looked as though it might have translated into an automatic Championship 4 ticket. Blaney was one of the drivers to beat at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track he had only earned one top five at in his career.
It was an inspiring performance from the Team Penske driver, days after being handed a disqualification penalty at Las Vegas Motor Speedway only to be rescinded less than 24 hours later.
The decision moved Blaney from likely must-win territory (56 points back) to a controllable 17 points out. He responded by grabbing 18 stage points (including a stage two win), leading 53 laps and finishing one spot short of victory lane in second.
Though Blaney was unable to punch an automatic Championship 4 ticket, he is in much better shape than he was coming into Miami, flipping his 17-point deficit into a 10-point cushion over the cut line. He did his part by running up front all day and scoring a race-high 53 points, which he was rewarded for on lap 236.
If Blaney did not win, his immediate points competition became noticeably clear: Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. And despite Blaney outrunning his closest playoff competitors, both Hamlin and Truex were having solid enough days to keep him submerged under the cut line surface.
When Hamlin finally was able to restart with Blaney at the front late in the race, the battle that ensued was fierce and full of intensity, as both knew a title spot was on the line. Hamlin finally got by Blaney, who expressed his displeasure later, but it was short-lived.
As the No. 11 entered turn 1 on lap 236, it took a sharp right, pancaking the wall on the right side. Hamlin reported a steering failure, and the damage ultimately ended his day, leaving him in 30th.
However, Joe Gibbs’ nightmare was only beginning. Just moments later, smoke rolled out of the exhaust of Truex’s No. 19, and a blown engine forced him out of the race, stranding him in 29th. Entering the playoffs as favorites after finishing the regular season 1-2 in points, both Hamlin and Truex are in serious jeopardy, sitting 17 points below the cut line.
As the Joe Gibbs Racing duo limped to the garage, a neon yellow No. 12 drove around unscathed. It was another domino to fall in the right direction for Blaney, who had just avoided getting steamrolled by Kyle Larson entering pit road a handful of laps earlier. For a driver who has faced his share of coming up short or enduring unfortunate circumstances, the Blaney wave is riding high as it shrinks for others.
It is an incredible turn of events that may have completely shaken the title race at Phoenix Raceway. Many had Blaney exiting the playoffs in the Round of 16 after a summer slump. And even after advancing to the Round of 12, a late-race speeding penalty and crash at Texas Motor Speedway appeared to spell doom for the No. 12 team.
That was until an electric win at Talladega Superspeedway has Blaney on a streak of four consecutive top-12 results, including three finishes of sixth or better. For a driver who has arguably had the most speed at Penske the past few seasons, yet played second fiddle to the masterful execution by Joey Logano and the No. 22 team, Blaney now has the opportunity to earn the spotlight.
The 29-year-old is 10 points above Tyler Reddick entering Martinsville Speedway, a track that is statistically Blaney’s best despite no wins there. In 15 starts, he has seven top fives, nine top 10s, 127 stage points, 377 laps led and an average finish of 9.5. Additionally, he hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last nine races there.
To the contrary, Reddick has just one top 10 at The Paperclip, 19 stage points and an average finish north of 20th in seven starts.
If Blaney runs like he typically does at Martinsville, that could force Hamlin and Truex into a must-win situation. There aren’t too many places better for them to do it, as Hamlin owns five wins there while Truex boasts three, all from 2019-2021.
The issue is that the momentum that Blaney owns is not in either JGR drivers’ corner. After a scorching hot start to the playoffs, Hamlin has cooled off since the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, with finishes of 37th, 10th and 30th. Plus, he could not avoid angering another driver in the process, something that many have pointed out as affecting his title bids in the past.
Truex’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad playoffs continue. A little hope with his lone playoff top 10 coming at LVMS was immediately extinguished by the engine failure.
That ninth-place finish in Vegas serves as his only top 15 in the playoffs, and there are no signs of a quick turnaround. To rub salt in the wound, every champion has earned at least five top 10s in the playoffs under the current format.
The present scenario continues to display the unpredictability of the playoffs, and for the second year in a row, a Penske driver could fly under the radar into Phoenix while JGR’s only title representation hangs on the shoulders of their youngest driver.
Both Hamlin and Truex could absolutely win at Martinsville, or Reddick could point his way in. But momentum, confidence and recent history favor Blaney, who enters the Round of 8 finale above the cut line for the first time in his career.
If that Championship 4 looks like it does now following 500 laps at Martinsville, lap 236 in Homestead can be looked at as the lap that turned the tide.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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