NASCAR: Perennial contender at risk of early playoff exit

Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

Ryan Blaney is in a scary scenario where he could be eliminated from the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs following the opening round, but he is headed to a track where he has shown speed.

Coming into the final race of the round of 16 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney sits 27 points below the round of 12 cut line, putting him in the worst NASCAR Cup Series playoff position he has been in.

Blaney, who has qualified for the round of 12 in three straight seasons and gone on to the round of 8 in two of those three years, is in a situation where he has to be running near the front at the end of every stage. While he is not mathematically in a must-win position, that is basically how it needs to be viewed.

The mishaps in the opening round started before the green flag flew at Darlington Raceway to begin the playoffs when he was docked 10 driver points for an improperly mounted ballast.

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He was to have started the playoffs in seventh place in the standings; he started in a 13th place tie instead.

He further plummeted outside the top 12 with multiple problems in that race, as he finished in 24th place and a lap off the lead lap, the worst of all playoff drivers.

Then at Richmond Raceway, he had to pit a second time following the competition caution to tighten lug nuts and couldn’t rebound. He finished in 19th place and two laps off the lead lap, second worst of all playoff drivers.

All of a sudden, the driver who many considered a dark horse to make a run at the Championship 4 is at risk of being eliminated from championship contention after the round of 16.

The four-turn, 0.533-mile (0.858-kilometer) Bristol Motor Speedway oval in Bristol, Tennessee, is a track where Blaney has been a frontrunner. Still, that can lead to something good or something heartbreaking. This is a track where he is very fast, especially ever since Team Penske fielded a third full-time car for him starting in 2018.

Blaney spoke with the media on Thursday morning and was asked what it would take to get the monkey off his back and finally win at “The Last Great Colosseum.”

"“This is a place where we’ve run pretty good at. I think the biggest thing is adapting to the track as the race gets further along when we get to the lap 350-400 mark to adapt and see what it’s going to do, it’s something Todd [Gordon, Blaney’s crew chief] and I have talked a lot about this week, and have watched a lot of races.”"

There have been many times Blaney has raced at Bristol Motor Speedway and had pace, but hasn’t been able to get to lap 350 of 500.

In his first race at the track for Team Penske in the Cup Series in August of 2018, he was flawless in the opening stage. He led 100 laps and was either going to win it or finish second to teammate Brad Keselowski. But with less than 10 laps to go in the stage, a group of backmarkers crashed in his path, leaving him with nowhere to go and ending his day in 35th place.

Up to that point, he had the best car in the race, and if it wasn’t for lapped traffic causing a wreck, he would’ve had a good shot to win it.

Blaney was able to rebound in the night race that August, winning the first stage and leading the most laps with 121. But once he lost the lead on lap 200, he did not gain it back and went on to finish in seventh place.

While using a different rules package at the track in April of 2019, Blaney led the most laps again with 158. But with 147 laps to go, he lost the lead to teammate Joey Logano following a 98-lap stint at the front and never gained it back en route to a fourth place finish.

The night race in August was a quiet one for him. Despite getting caught up in the race’s biggest wreck on lap 374, he rebounded and finished in 10th place.

Now to 2020. Back in May, Blaney came in with another strong car and finished in second place in the opening stage. He was able to lead 60 laps, but on lap 200, he was battling Keselowski for the lead when he got loose on the high banking of turn two. He stopped with no damage, before Ty Dillon came in way too hot on the outside and tried to make a hard left turn to avoid the #12 Ford. Instead, he clipped Blaney, ending both of their races.

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Eyes will be on Ryan Blaney to see if he can rebound from a round of 16 that he would like to forget in tomorrow evening’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race. Green flag time is set for 7:30 p.m. ET, with live coverage set to be brought to you on NBC Sports Network.