Ryan Blaney appears to have started off the 2020 NASCAR Playoffs on the wrong foot — pedal? — just two races into the 10-race slate.
Out of the 16 title-eligible drivers, Blaney is the only one who has finished worse than 17th in both events. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford placed 24th in the Round of 16 opener at Bristol Motor Speedway last week and then 19th in Saturday’s middle clash at Richmond Raceway.
“There’s nothing you can do about it now,” Blaney said. “What happened at Darlington happened and what happened tonight is already done and gone, so all we can do is look for Bristol and go try to have a really good run and try to win the race and move on. That’s our only hope, but we certainly picked a bad time to start running bad, but hopefully we can get it turned around. We’ve got one week to do it.”
The next closest comparison is Matt DiBenedetto. The No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, which is affiliated with Blaney’s Team Penske organization, was 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. That’s where the worse-than-17th bar came from.
Blaney earned his way into postseason contention thanks to victory at Talladega Superspeedway in June. DiBenedetto pointed his way in, taking the 16th and final seed. Blaney, meanwhile, was the seventh seed.
Now DiBenedetto has an advantage — albeit slight — on Blaney heading into the first round’s cutoff race Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Blaney has dropped to the bottom spot — 27 points below the cutline. DiBenedetto is also in jeopardy since he’s 25 points out in 15th. Cole Custer is then 14th with an eight-point deficit, while William Byron (danger) and Clint Bowyer (safe) straddle elimination with three points determining their fates.
Technically, Blaney is not in a must-win situation when it comes advancing into the Round of 12. But it’s a small enough technicality he might as well be.
“First off, Blaney has done this long enough and has been in these positions before, so I think you kind of figure out what you need in your own way,” said Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, who finished third at Richmond. “Ryan Blaney is a different than Joey Logano and different than Brad Keselowski and different than Chase Elliott and the next guy and the next guy. The same thing that works for me is not going to work for him. We’re wired differently. We all are.
“I think the biggest thing is you dig deep down inside and you figure out what makes you tick, what makes you have a little bit more. … You’ve got to level up. That’s what the playoffs are about.”
During the 26-race regular season, Blaney had five finishes outside the top 30 and seven finishes outside the top 20. He also had eight top fives and 11 top 10s.
During the May event at Bristol, Blaney led 60 laps but wrecked out early and ended up 40th. It marked his worst finish ever at the .533-mile track. He also had one top five and four top 10s in his nine other career starts there — highlighted by a fourth-place finish in the spring of 2019.
“Just go win the damn thing,” Team Penske teammate and Richmond race winner Brad Keselowski said. “He’s really good at Bristol and he can do that. Don’t think about it, just go win it.”