Defending Charlotte ROVAL winner Ryan Blaney is focused on his Playoff future

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 27: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Duracell Ford, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on September 27, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney certainly takes pride in the race-winning effort he turned in at the inaugural Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL race last September. His charge from third place to the checkered flag on the last turns of the last lap was highly dramatic and especially rewarding. It was his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory and earning the trophy in a Playoff race carried him to the next round of title contention.

But, he conceded after opening practice on the road course Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he prefers to look ahead to that next victory rather than behind to his last.

Of course, the two celebratory moments may well share a venue should Blaney win Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“It’s nice coming back to a place you’ve won at, no matter how you do it,” Blaney said, acknowledging the intense turn of events last year when first and second place drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson collided a few yards from the finish line on the last lap allowing Blaney to motor through from third place to the victory.

“Honestly, I was kind of more excited to come back here to see the new chicane. I think that was pretty unique, a lot different from what we had last year.”

The slight course-adjustment aside, Blaney insisted, “It’s nice to come back. That’s kind of all I’ve heard this week was ‘last winner’ and I don’t really think about that stuff too much. I kind of think about the next one coming up.”

The 25-year old has certainly turned in every reason this season to believe he will be a ROVAL contender again. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford finished in the top-five at both the previous road course races this season – fifth at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and third at Sonoma, Calif.

Blaney reminded that this year’s ROVAL course and last year’s inaugural version are slightly – yet significantly – different. He expects the widening of the chicane – from 32-feet to 54-feet at the widest portion – to race differently. It certainly took some getting used to in Friday’s opening practice. Blaney was 10th fastest. Seven-time series champion Johnson topped the speed chart.

“I think the corner is gonna be really exciting in the race when we’re all bunched up together,” Blaney said. “You’ll see some pretty bonsai moves in there, but it’s definitely a lot different.

“I like it better. You needed another heavy braking zone. Before you could never pass through there, it was just too fast and way too narrow, so I think it’s a good thing that they’ve done that.”

Blaney’s motivation certainly meets his skill set. This week is the cutoff race to determine which 12 of the 16 Playoff drivers are still championship-eligible in the second round of the Playoffs – races at Dover, Del., Talladega, Ala. and Kansas. Blaney is currently ranked 10th in the standings – with eight top-five and 13 top-10 finishes this season – his best outing of 2019, a third place at Phoenix and Sonoma, Calif. But, he holds only an eight-point edge on 13th place Alex Bowman. Only 10 points separate Blaney and 14th place Clint Bowyer.

“Honestly, we’re in a better spot this year than what we were last year,” Blaney said. “I think we were only four points above the cutoff line last year and I thought we executed the day really well from getting stage points in the first stage and winning the second one. That was kind of our goal.

“Every team around the cutoff line are gonna have their certain goals and how they’re gonna play the race out and we kind of have our slight idea and plan of what we’ve talked about this week and gonna try to stick to that. And then you compromise if things don’t go your way or something random happens.

“You just try to have a solid day.”

Greg Engle