Ryan Blaney acknowledged with a slight smile Friday morning that perhaps some pundits don’t consider his No. 12 Team Penske Ford team a shoe-in to advance beyond this second round of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup playoffs.
Then again, those may be the same people that weren’t expecting the 24-year old to be one of only three race winners in the first round either. And he and his team are still feeling the good vibes from last Sunday’s victory at the Charlotte ROVAL even as they change focus to this Sunday’s Gander Mountain 400 at Dover International Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Just because you win a race, and the circumstances that we won the race in we weren’t the best race car that weekend, last week, but I don’t really think it elevates us or hurts us winning that race as far as the outside kind of sees,’’ Blaney said. “I feel like it’s more of a confidence-builder inside the 12-team and inside our whole group that really gets everyone fired up, and big momentum for our team. I wouldn’t say we’re a championship favorite. I’d say we’re in the hunt and honestly we’ve been in the hunt all year.
“I feel like we’ve kind of been on the cusp of being right there where we need to be just finding that little bit more from the speed standpoint of the race car and myself, but I think we’re close.
“I don’t think we’re a favorite, but I think we’re getting close to where we need to be, which is nice to see the progress that we’ve had throughout the year. It’s really been fun to be a part of and witness in person.”
Blaney has always been a humble, low-key persona even as one of the most popular new generation Cup drivers. Most importantly – as his win Sunday demonstrates – he is a top-shelf talent and knows how to get it done when it matters most. He and Penske teammate Brad Keselowski (at Las Vegas) and regular season champion, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch (Richmond, Va.) are the only drivers arriving at the always-tough Dover “Monster Mile” with a playoff victory in their pocket and plenty of positive momentum.
Blaney’s eighth place finish at Dover this spring ties his best work (also in Fall, 2016) at the track.
On the season, he has finished in the top-10 in four of the last seven Cup races with a fifth place at the Vegas playoff opener plus the win on Sunday moving him to the eighth place in the playoff standings. He’s only two points behind fifth place Clint Bowyer in a crowded and competitive top-eight as the second round begins.
“We had a pretty good run at this track earlier this year,’’ Blaney said of Dover. “We’ve always run decent here, we haven’t really led a lot of laps here, but we’ve kind of been running in that fifth to eighth range here for the last year or so, and we did that in the first race here.
“I think we ran eighth or something, but I think it’s just trying to be consistent throughout the whole race. I think that’s really important in these Playoffs and the reason why you want to be consistent is obviously the stage points and you want to be able to get stage points in every round or every stage, I should say, and finish the race where you should up towards the front of the field. The same thing goes at Talladega.”
His positioning is solid going forward and Blaney says the team is genuinely – and understandably – invigorated with the victory at Charlotte. And with tough and varied venues in this round – from the Dover one-miler, to the Talladega Superspeedway restrictor plate toss-up next week and the Kansas 1.5-miler elimination race the next – any positive momentum can be a difference maker.
Blaney has a pair of top-10s in eight Talladega starts and has been taken out in crashes two of the last three races there. He started on the outside pole position at Kansas earlier this year and led 54 laps before being caught up in a crash. But he has three top-fives at the track, including a third place in the playoff race there last season.
“People focus on just not getting in the big one, and that’s a big part of it, but you’ve got to get stage points at that place,’’ Blaney said of Talladega. “You can’t go to Talladega or these speedways and not get any stage points. That’s a killer to your day. We did that a couple times. We didn’t get any stage points at Richmond and we finished 19th and that was a brutal hit to the points that we were in in the first round, so you really can’t have that and especially when you start moving on in the rounds and the championship field gets smaller and smaller.
“You’ve got to get stage points and finish well, so I think just being consistent is the biggest thing we have to do and obviously staying out of trouble.”
With so much on the line in this most crucial portion of the schedule, Blaney conceded a good celebration last Sunday with friends followed by Team Penske’s traditional victory ceremony at the shop on Monday has certainly kept him and his team enthusiastic about their chances going forward in the trophy hunt. His exuberance is a fantastic reminder of what winning is all about. And it will surprise no one if Blaney wins more.
“It’s good to celebrate these wins, but then you’re focused on the next week, so there has just been a couple more things to do and you see everybody in the shop,’’ Blaney shared with a smile. “They’re really excited, so it’s nice to see their faces, but you’re focused immediately on the next round, the next race and trying to do it again.”