DAYTONA BEACH — Ryan Blaney got out of his No. 12 Team Penske Ford on Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway looking both relieved and genuinely exhausted.
Claimed the last position in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs after finishing 15th, six laps down, in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 regular season finale; he and his team put up a tenacious performance in a race that was delayed a full day and then extended by a red-flag break of more than three hours due to rain.
Four multi-car crashes eliminated many other pre-race favorites. And in the end, Blaney built a three-point lead in the standings over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. to claim the last position in the 2022 Playoffs. Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was eighth in the race. But the math of the entire season gave Blaney a shot at the Playoffs, with first-time winner Austin Dillon taking the other Playoff position on the line.
Blaney, who took a 25-point lead in the race, had an early crash that severely weakened his car and ultimately prevented him from mounting a serious threat to win the race. And 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Truex actually took the lead in the Playoffs for much of the day following the Blaney incident early in the race.
The race was stopped with 21 laps remaining due to bad weather and had it not resumed, Truex was in a position to transfer to the Playoff field.
But the race resumed, and eventually Blaney persevered (damaged car, downturns and all) to earn his sixth straight playoff bid.
It was a day of high competition and a lot of excitement with the Playoff lineup changing often. And Blaney, 28, maintains that it was actually his ability to temper his emotions — having dinner, watching golf on TV and actually relaxing during that long red-flag delay — that may have made the difference Sunday.
“It’s easy to get a little scared and stuff like that, but you just have to pull yourself together,” Blaney said of not giving up despite the misfortune of the opening race. “It’s out of your hands at the time, there really was nothing.” we could hope that another winner wins the race or that we can still beat Martin on points.
“Just try to stay calm and accept the fact, it may not happen. And it wasn’t anything we did wrong, we just got caught up in someone else’s mess. I’ve been saying that all week. You can get caught up in someone else’s mess and that’s what happened to us. I try to stay optimistic, you make a run at the end.
“But you try to stay positive about those things,” Blaney continued. “You never know what could happen. Our day wasn’t great from the start but you’re just trying to keep your head up and stay in the game and that’s what we want. They did a good job of trying to fix it as best they could even though we weren’t fast, we just kept going and that’s really what made the difference for us.”
Truex, meanwhile, got out of his Toyota understandably in the other extreme of emotion. He was leading Blaney by 12 points for transfer position when the race was red-flagged. If NASCAR hadn’t restarted the race, Truex would be in contention for a title.
The two were tied, then traded the lead for a point, then finally Blaney took it for granted with that tiny three-point spread in the final exciting handful of laps.
Truex said damage to his car earlier in another of the mid-race multi-car accidents really left him unable to contend for the win in the closing laps without any writing partners.
“I just had too much damage at the end, I just couldn’t keep up,” Truex said. But too much damage to have the speed to do anything.
“We really did a good job to get 22 points back in one race,” he said. “It’s a big win. Unfortunately, it was not enough today.
“The Bass Pro Shops Toyota was really quick, and we ran, what I thought was a smart race, just in the wrong place at the wrong time and 30 cars here today could tell you that. Simply frustrating. We race well and then we crash and at the end of the day we still have a somewhat decent finish, but it doesn’t really matter.”
And so Blaney, who was ranked third in the championship standings before the Playoffs restarted, will compete for his first title. He has eight top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races. Truex was sixth in the points going into the Daytona race. Both drivers are still in the running for their first wins of the season.
The 10-race knockout-style NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs kick off next week with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (SC) Raceway next Sunday (6 pm ET on USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“We still have a lot to compete for and winning a couple of races would be awesome,” Truex said.