NASCAR playoffs

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Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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Bump & Run: Playoff sleepers and those trending down

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Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.

Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.

Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.

Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.

Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.

Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?

Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round. As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.

Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.

Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.

NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?

Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.

Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.

Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly. 

Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs. 

Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

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Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

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Examining playoff picture for Cup, Xfinity, Truck Series

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Here is a breakdown of the playoff situation for each of NASCAR’s three national series.

Monster Energy Cup Series

 

Xfinity Series

  • Two races remain in the regular season (Friday at Richmond and Sept. 16 at Chicagoland).
  • Four drivers are locked into the playoffs with a win (William Byron, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Reed and Jeremy Clements).
  • Elliott Sadler, Brennan Poole and Daniel Hemric clinched a playoffs spot on points.
  • Cole Custer is in the playoffs if there is not a new winner who is outside the current playoff cutoff
  • At least three drivers will make the playoffs on points.
  • Elliott Sadler will clinch the 2017 regular season championship if he has a 61-point lead over second place in points following Richmond (he enters with a 91-point lead).

 

Camping World Truck Series

Four spots remain in the Xfinity playoffs as three more clinch berths on points at Darlington

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Cole Custer (ninth), Daniel Hemric (18th) and Brennan Poole (sixth) clinched Xfinity Series playoff berths Saturday with top-2o finishes at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott Sadler missed the chance to clinch the regular-season Xfinity points title but maintained a sizable margin despite finishing 33rd in a late crash Saturday.

Sadler leads JR Motorsports teammate William Byron by 91 points in the standings with two races remaining in the regular season at Richmond International Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway.

The seven-race playoffs will begin with a 12-driver field in the Sept. 23 race at Kentucky Speedway. Sadler already had clinched a berth on points. William Byron, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Reed and Jeremy Clements have clinched playoffs spots with wins, leaving four berths open.

Click here for the Xfinity points standings after Darlington Raceway.