RACING

Blaney, Truex and other contenders face one last shot at Daytona

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By Bob Pockras
FOX Sports Writer NASCAR

WATKINS GLEN, NY – With a 25-point lead over Martin Truex Jr.. for last place in the playoffs, ryan blaney wants to be able to feel comfortable with his playoff prospects.

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And he might feel a bit off, if not for the site of Saturday’s regular-season finale.

Does Blaney believe he controls his own destiny?

“Not at Daytona,” he said, “no.”

The 16-driver playoff field consists of the regular season champion and 15 other drivers based on the number of wins, with ties broken by points.

Chase Elliott, who has four wins, has already won the regular season title. There are 14 other drivers with wins: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Kurt Busch.

That leaves a vacancy for either the winless driver with the most points or the driver who records his first win of the year on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway – a track known for its unpredictability and upheaval.

These drivers would earn a playoff spot with a win at Daytona: Blaney, Truex, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski, Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon and Todd Gilliland.

Ryan Blaney on his current playoff odds

Ryan Blaney on his current playoff odds

Ryan Blaney analyzes his chances of winning in the final two Cup races of the 2022 regular season and explains why he isn’t losing sleep over his playoff prospects.

Blaney (third overall in regular season points) and Truex (sixth) are the only drivers who can score points. Both seemed relaxed at Watkins Glen, even knowing what they were up against.

“I slept well this week,” Blaney said. “It’s no different than other times. You can’t stress about it. It’s going to happen or not, whether you make the playoffs or not.

“There are only two choices, two options. You can’t stress about the negatives if you don’t do it. If you stress about it, then your mind is fixed on that, [and] you won’t make it.”

Truex, the 2017 Cup champion, has been in the championship round of the playoffs in five of the past six years, recording three second-place finishes. The stress of making the playoffs is pretty foreign to him.

“I don’t think anything compares to the pressure you feel when you’re in a championship race,” said Truex, who enters Daytona with a 33-race winless streak. “It’s kind of ‘child’s play’. … We’ll do our best, there’s no quick fix.

“We’re just going to run hard.”

Martin Truex Jr. under pressure to make playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. under pressure to make playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. says the pressure to qualify for the playoffs is “a breeze” compared to the pressure a driver feels when racing for the championship.

Truex has never won a race at the Daytona and Talladega superspeedways. But he won the first two stages of the Daytona 500 this year and came close on several occasions.

Blaney won the cut-off race at Daytona last year – he’s now gone 35 races without a win – and nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, but teammate Austin Cindric threw a big block at him to snatch the trophy. Jones, Almirola, Austin Dillon, Haley, McDowell, Stenhouse and Keselowski are others among the winning and winning prospects who have a Cup win at Daytona on their resume.

“Knowing that if you win you’re in, it adds that same level of [Daytona 500] excitement for the fans and angst for the drivers,” said Almirola.

“At least for the riders who have to get there. You go there with a lot of pressure and you feel there’s a lot of weight on you to get there.”

Many drivers entered Watkins Glen last weekend knowing that road racing was not their forte and were targeting Daytona as their likely route to the playoffs.

They also know how difficult it is to win a race. Current winless streaks for drivers attempting to enter: Buescher (219), Stenhouse (188), Jones (108), Custer (80), Austin Dillon (78), McDowell (60), Haley (58), Keselowski (51), Almirola (39), Blaney (35), Truex (33) and Wallace (29).

Ty Dillon (191 career starts), Burton (26) and Gilliland (25) have never won a Cup race.

“You go to Daytona with a certain level of pressure that’s really high, you feel like it’s your last shot,” Almirola said. “Every year when we start the season, our goal is to win races, to make the playoffs, to race for a championship.”

Aric Almirola on the pressure ahead of Daytona

Aric Almirola on the pressure ahead of Daytona

Aric Almirola describes the pressure felt by the drivers, knowing that Daytona is their last shot to make the NASCAR playoffs.

Drivers need help in the Daytona draft, and their builders expect them to help their brand.

But the cutoff race at Daytona could present an interesting choice for a driver: help a teammate or friend win, or help a driver who isn’t considered a championship contender to ensure that neither Blaney nor Truex – Championship contenders if they make the playoffs – gets in the playoffs.

Jones, who is 17th in the Cup standings, wouldn’t mind someone feeling that and pushing him to victory.

“I like that mentality,” he laughed. “If they want to help me, I’m more than willing [to take it].

“I think we’ll have a fast car for sure, so I think people will want to work with us just because of that.”

Erik Jones on his state of mind before Daytona

Erik Jones on his state of mind before Daytona

Erik Jones will have to win at Daytona to reach the playoffs. Will someone push him to victory? Does the fact that he’s not seen as a championship threat potentially help?

Drivers who need to win might plan to race near the back of the field in hopes of avoiding large wrecks. Others won’t want to smash their way through the peloton at what could be a frantic finish, as it could require even more risky moves and could trigger an accident.

“It could be a deal where you have a lot of guys that the only thing that matters to them is winning, so they might not be running as hard,” Austin Dillon said.

“And you’ve got a few guys who probably think they’ll hold their position all day, and that’s how we’re going to win.”

Although they all have the pressure to win, they know, as Blaney said, there’s not much they can do.

“Hopefully we can win Daytona and race well enough to get there,” Blaney said. “That’s all we can do.”

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Quick Thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson’s move on Elliott above the line?

Quick Thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson's move on Elliott above the line?

Bob Pockrass wonders if he thinks Kyle Larson’s move on Chase Elliott to win at Watkins Glen has crossed the line.

Thinking out loud

It was probably a little frustrating for the fans that NASCAR delayed the start of the race from Watkins Glen to deal with some puddles on the track, but after what NASCAR went through last year at the Circuit des Americas, it was the right decision.

Drivers said they were concerned about visibility during pace laps. About half said the track was not in running condition. Were some motivated by not wanting to run in the rain? Maybe. But in this case, NASCAR must err on the side of caution.

Last year’s wrecks at COTA, when drivers couldn’t see in the middle of the rain and spray their tires, are not something that can be repeated. NASCAR made sure of that. Even though the race may have started 30 minutes later than expected, it was the right choice to ensure the track was safe for the race.

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Statistics of the day

Kyle Larson has become the second driver to sweep the Xfinity and Cup races at Watkins Glen. The other? Joey Logano in 2015.

They said it

“I came into this hot. I did what I had to do to win. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of it, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I I had to perform that way to get the win.” – Kyle Larson after forcing his way past Chase Elliott with five laps to go on Sunday

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR newsletter with Bob Pockrass!


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