Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FORT WORTH, TX – Just this week, 25-year-old Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney took to social media to acknowledge and chide some media prognosticators, who may not have penciled him to still be Playoff-eligible and a win away from his Championship 4 debut.
But he is. And more than that Blaney is liking the good vibes of his No. 12 Team Penske Ford’s Playoff showing.
Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a venue where Blaney can feel especially optimistic.
He won the 2018 Xfinity Series race from the pole position on the Fort Worth high banks, finished less than half a second off race-winner Kevin Harvick’s bumper in the overtime 2018 Cup Series Playoff race there and placed sixth in the 2017 Cup Playoff race. He had a string of three top-10 finishes only interrupted in March when his car suffered a rare over-heating issue.
Blaney is coming off a fifth-place finish at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last weekend – his fourth top 10 in the opening seven Playoff races and second top 10 in three weeks, including a career-first victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
He’s ranked sixth in the Playoff standings going into Texas, one point behind fifth-place Kevin Harvick and only 15 points behind his Team Penske shopmate Joey Logano in the all-important fourth place – ultimately the position determining which four drivers earn a championship shot at the season finale Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver, 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex has already earned his shot at a second championship with a win at Martinsville last week. Truex’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, a five-race winner, is ranked second in the standings and their JGR teammate Kyle Busch – a four-race winner and the regular season champion is third, seven points behind Hamlin.
“Our morale is really high,’’ Blaney said Friday afternoon at Texas. “Obviously we want to get two [Penske] cars into Homestead, me and the 22 (Logano). That is tough do but I think the best thing you can do is worry about your own group.
“Like I said, our group is on a pretty big high right now. Talladega is gone and in the past. We are really excited about these tracks coming up here.
“We had a strong showing at Martinsville and got a lot of stage points and finished decent there which kept us in the hunt. You go out and grab a bunch of stage points the next two races and finish good, if you don’t win the race obviously, you keep yourself in the hunt.
“These next two tracks, here and Phoenix, have been really good to us in the past and have been good to us this year. We are really looking forward to the rest of the way here and trying to keep chugging along.’’
Blaney’s impressive Playoff run matches one of his best seasons with the legendary Penske championship team. His 10 top-5 efforts is a career best and his 16 top-10 finishes equals a career high, with three races remaining to top that mark.
He’s now won a race in each of the previous three seasons and this penultimate Round of 8 is the farthest he’s ever advanced in the Playoffs.
As to that, Blaney acknowledged the pressure is certainly more palpable. And to his credit, he has not just glided in under the radar, he won one of the challenging races of the year (at Talladega) to advance to this important round.
“It definitely gets intense,’’ Blaney said. “You saw emotions run high last week. … Any race, playoff or not, I don’t really look at it any differently. If you make each round or whatever. At the end of the day, you still have a shot at making it to Homestead.
“We have to do like last week, go to the track and do your job as best you can and run as well as you can and stay out of trouble and win the race. I have always had the same mindset throughout the whole year. I think if you change your mindset coming into the playoffs it is a little different. Why aren’t you in that mindset all year?
“That is kind of how we have always approached it and being aggressive when we can and approach the playoff races the same as any race.’’
Having said that, Blaney also acknowledged that there is an unspoken and unmistaken realization that everyone is upping their games now. And he is ready.
“The intensity is high and there are lot of great cars,’’ Blaney said. “There are seven other cars in this Round of 8 that are really great and there are only three spots left open to get in.
“I could easily see a playoff guy winning this week,’’ he added. “The tension ratchets up just like any Playoff system in any sport. Everyone gets really emotional because you realize what you are going for and you have shot at it.’’