Blaney tries to get back on track at Kentucky

For popular Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney, the strategy and season outlook isn’t that complicated. After getting his breakthrough first career Cup win last season, the Team Penske driver has been an odds-on favorite to hoist another trophy – or two – this season and be a legitimate title contender when it comes playoff time.

But uncharacteristic issues have derailed strong expectations for the front-running team this summer and the 24-year-old has arrived at Kentucky Speedway for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) ready to right the ship.

He’s visited Victory Lane at this 1.5-mile track before – scoring his first NASCAR Xfinity series win in 2013, then answering with his fourth career Xfinity triumph in 2015 – and now he’s ready to celebrate a triumph here on NASCAR’s grandest stage.

“I’ve enjoyed this race track, whether it was before it got repaved or now,’’ Blaney said Friday morning before Cup practice.

And, he added, “I feel like our team is pretty close to where it needs to be and I enjoy this place.’’

Three consecutive tough-luck outings in as many weeks may have others concerned about Blaney’s No. 12 Ford team, but he remains confident and optimistic – always looking forward.

“I feel like our team is pretty close to where it needs to be and I enjoy this place,’’ Blaney said. “I think our mile-and-a-half program has been pretty decent, we just need to take that next step and we’re kind of closing the gap between a few other teams and, you know who the teams are.’’

Yes, Blaney has suffered through some tough luck in the last three races – a mechanical issue at the Sonoma, California, road course, a loose wheel at Chicagoland to being collected in an accident at Daytona last weekend. His 40th-place finish at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night marked his worst outing of the season.

But Blaney remains safely inside the playoff points standings. He was ranked among the top-five for the first seven races of the season, but has fallen to 11th after this rather uncharacteristic string of summer races. He’s won two pole positions (at Las Vegas, and Pocono, where he scored his first career Cup win last year) and has eight top-10 finishes.

There’s no panic here. Just a real desire to get back on track.

“I’m not a big points-looker guy,’’ Blaney said. “I just go try and run the best I can and that stuff figures itself out, whether you win or run well.

“We just have to stop having trouble. The last three weeks have been a bunch of problems for us, from breaking at Sonoma to having loose wheels at Chicago and then last week, getting in a wreck.

“That’s just stuff that can’t happen. It almost takes the wind out of your sails when stuff like that happens. When it’s really none of your doing and you get caught up in it, it’s still kind of disappointing to everybody and everybody gets down.

“We’re just trying to string together and trying to get back on track, especially before the Playoffs, hopefully. We can’t have anymore trouble, but just run like I know our team can run – run up toward the front and try to bring fast cars every weekend, which we have, it’s just a shame that hasn’t shown up here the last few races.’’

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