Ryan Blaney embracing underdog status in first playoff run

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Even though his first shot at a NASCAR Cup title will come against drivers he grew up admiring, Ryan Blaney believes that won’t phase him in his first Cup playoff appearance.

“I don’t really get intimidated,” Blaney said Wednesday at the NASCAR Cup playoff media day in Charlotte. “These drivers are people just like us. I’ve watched them when I was younger. I’ve watched a lot of them. I’ve been big fans of a lot of them when I was younger growing up in this sport, and I just think it’s really neat.”

The 23-year-old driver for Wood Brothers Racing didn’t fully appreciate his inclusion in the playoffs until last Saturday.

After finishing 18th at Richmond, Blaney was presented as one of the 16 drivers who would compete in the playoffs, thanks to his win at Pocono Raceway in June.

“That part was very neat after Richmond to stand up there with 15 other drivers and get your picture taken with the trophy and realize, ‘Hey, I deserve to be here too,'” Blaney said. “Our team deserves this opportunity and this chance to be here. That was very special for me.

“I’ve wanted to be a part of that ever since they started that and I saw it as a kid. It was neat to be up there with some people you looked up to as a kid, as well as some of the younger drivers that you’re competing against.”

Blaney doesn’t enter the playoffs with a full head of steam. In the 12 races since his Pocono victory, the first of his Cup career, Blaney has four top 10s, but no finish better than eighth. That stretch includes two DNFs at Daytona and Indianapolis.

Blaney, pursuing the first NASCAR championship for the Wood Brothers since 1963, acknowledges the team got caught looking ahead to Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway and the following nine races.

“These playoff cars are always getting built and our Chicago car has been in the works for a long time,” Blaney said. “They’re constantly changing, whether it’s setup stuff or body or modifications they find throughout the week. We’re changing stuff today, just last-minute things that the aero group finds or the engineers find that we think will be better.”

The driver of the No. 21 Ford – who will be joining Team Penske next year –  knows he and the rest of the field will likely be chasing Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch in pursuit of the title.

“Hopefully, we can get some of that performance to where we can compete with those guys every single lap,” Blaney said. “I know the last couple months we haven’t had the best of runs, and that’s really not a lot of car performance, but things not happening our way or taking more chances than we probably should after we got a win at Pocono just because we could do that and take more chances of trying to win races or stages and them not playing out for us.

“It’s hard to kind of see where you stack up before Chicago. Even Darlington, the last mile-and-a-half, it’s hard to really even see where you line up there because it’s such a unique race track and Richmond is hard to kind of tell.”

Blaney joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in being in the playoffs for the first time. Both of them and Austin Dillon got into the playoffs with their first Cup wins.

Though he has fewer wins this season than the Truex’s and Larson’s of the series, Blaney said he doesn’t mind being called “an underdog or dark horse.”

“That means if you exceed expectations you kind of know that it’s even that much cooler and better when you can do that,” Blaney said. “I don’t mind being called that, but I do think we are viewed as that.”

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