There is one every season. Over the final 10 weeks of the NASCAR Cup Series season, the playoffs wind up producing a memorable story somewhere along the way.
A dominant Kevin Harvick failing to make the title race last year. Joey Logano hulking up to take down the Big 3 in 2018. Jeff Gordon having a shot at the championship in 2015 – his final season. Or maybe Logano versus Matt Kenseth from that same postseason.
Something always happens. Someone makes themselves the talking point for one reason or another.
Ryan Blaney is working on being this year’s edition of that story.
A two-week win streak at Michigan and Daytona has propelled Blaney, crew chief Todd Gordon, and the No. 12 group from Team Penske from fifth to second on the playoff grid. His three wins are tied for second-most in the series, and Blaney, along with third seed Martin Truex Jr., has the second-most playoff points (24) on the grid.
But most importantly, Blaney and company enter the postseason on a more considerable high than the rest of the competition.
“It’s just nice to build momentum, that’s for sure,” Blaney said on Saturday night. “We won that Atlanta race in March, and it’s been a long time since we won last week. And obviously, this week, too. So, yeah, it’s just good momentum. It’s good for confidence. Not only my self-confidence, but everyone on the team, their confidence and things like that. It’s just huge. You can really have good momentum, and momentum is a huge thing in sports, especially, and what we do. And confidence is big in not only motorsports, but sports and life. If you have confidence in yourself that you can achieve something, know what your goal is, go out there and do the best you can and achieve it, that really helps you out.
“That part has been really neat. It’s great that we’ve got a lot of playoff points here, because something that alluded me in my previous playoff runs is, (I) don’t have a lot of playoff points when it comes to the end of the year. It’s been really cool to capitalize on all this stuff. It’s what you need, that’s for sure. We’re going to celebrate (tonight), but Monday morning, it’s on to Darlington. We have 10 really hard weeks ahead of us. We really have to do our jobs and concentrate. I look forward to that challenge.”
But being the guy with momentum and confidence is not the reason why Blaney could be ‘the story’. It’s what happens next.
A year ago, Blaney should have been an easy advancement through the Round of 16. Seventh on the playoff grid going into the first round, Blaney was well above the danger zone. That lasted just a few days.
The team threw it all away at Darlington before the car even made it onto the starting grid. A penalty for leaving a weight bag in the car during inspection led to Gordon’s ejection, Blaney starting from the rear and struggling, as well as the loss of points.
Blaney was irrelevant from then on. The team’s best finish in the first round was 13th in the cut-off race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which, as you know now, wasn’t good enough to be among the Round of 12.
Penske drivers don’t get eliminated in the first round. Or at least, they shouldn’t. Blaney had a letdown of a 2020 season after being paired with championship-winning leader Gordon.
This time around, though, things look to be going as they should. An early March win gave way to a primarily quiet – but solidly consistent – season before this hot streak in which Blaney has finally crossed the threshold of winning multiple races in a year, and now he’s also crossed winning back-to-back races off the list. Rarely has he or the team shot themselves in the foot.
“I don’t think I can really point out anything in particular over the last month and a half, two months that we’ve been running pretty good,” Blaney said. “Just everything has been kind of clicking and going well. I think a big thing is when Brad [Keselowski] said he was moving on from Penske – I realized I needed to (do) that leadership role that he did, and really give the extra effort to push myself more and just try to get better.
“I think it’s been paying off on that side of it, just applying yourself more and trying to make yourself a better race car driver, a better student of the sport. I think that’s helped. I think that’s the only thing. But it goes a long way, that’s for sure. It’s been a good past couple of months, and you just try to be on that uphill deal right there of trying to gain momentum before the playoffs. We got that right now. Just got to keep track of it.
“Some of it is just doing some things that I needed to do, and applying yourself more and understanding you need to be more of a leader and putting those things to use.”
In four playoff appearances, 2017 and ’19, Blaney made it as far as the Round of 8.
It’s nice to see Blaney’s group going to Darlington with everything buttoned up and running well. Continuing to do so while advancing out of the first round (at least) to be a presence through the playoffs is how Blaney will make a case for being one of this year’s headlines.
Winning the championship would ensure he’s the only story. But one thing at a time.