Analysis: Ryan Blaney suited for deep playoff run regardless of ‘momentum’


The word “momentum” was used eight times in Zoom sessions last week between members of the media and the 16 playoff drivers. Half of them were in regards to Ryan Blaney, two of them from the mouth of the driver in question.

“Momentum and confidence are something that we have right now (with) the 12 group because obviously, the last couple of weekends, it really helps get that rolling,” said Blaney, winner of two races inside the last three weeks at Michigan and Daytona. “It’s good for everybody, not only for the driver but for the team as well when they have a lot of confidence in themselves and their abilities and you can believe that you can do it and make a strong run at the championship. That’s part of the game.”

While a good stretch of races just before the start of the playoffs can do wonders for a driver’s confidence, there isn’t actually a direct line between what occurred then and what will occur moving forward. The tracks are different, as is the horsepower level. And in going from Michigan and Daytona, track lengths suiting Blaney — all seven of his Cup Series wins have occurred on tracks 1.5 miles or larger — to an opening playoff round consisting of Darlington and Richmond has the potential for a striking juxtaposition.

Darlington delivered the blow of a 22nd-place finish. Saturday’s race at Richmond doesn’t bode better, but Blaney is cautiously optimistic due to improved performance there in the spring.

“Richmond is not a place we’ve run spectacular at in the past,” Blaney said. “At Richmond, we ran top five in the first stage and kind of got away from the handling and ended up running 11th and having just a good solid day there.”

“Once you do have a solid race at a track you might not have had good runs at before, it gives you the mindset of ‘OK, I haven’t run great here in the past, but we had a good race. Let’s work on that.’ Now, I kind of have an idea of what I need to feel in the car, how I need to drive the racetrack, and what I need to work on throughout the race to try to stay up there and be competitive.”

Barring a poor performance unworthy of many points, it’s likely Blaney will advance to the next round, thanks in part to the cushion he built across the eight-race stretch before the start of the playoffs that culminated in back-to-back wins.

That was the truest reward of a run that also saw Blaney score high finishes on a variety of track types — second on the Indianapolis road course and a pair of fifth-place finishes at 1-mile New Hampshire and 1.5-mile Atlanta — that showcased the driver’s slow-burn growth into a well-rounded competitor.

But that isn’t the reason he’s well suited for a long playoff run. He’s well suited for a long playoff run because recent performance at the tracks comprising the playoff schedule suggests such a thing, independent of the eight-race race run that concluded the regular season. His spider chart, comparing him to other playoff drivers on playoff tracks in 2021, insists he’s one of the best position defenders on restarts with three other paths to track position hovering near average:

And to be clear, there’s nothing mind-blowing about his statistical profile aside from his restart defense (in the 81st percentile, with only Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin ranking higher), but when paired with his average median lap rank this season on playoff tracks (fifth with Talladega omitted), he makes for a tough out, with green-flag pit cycles standing as his team’s biggest vulnerability.

Unsurprisingly, the driver’s yearlong production skews towards races befitting his strength. In events ending with a late restart, his Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in effort to isolate his contribution — ranks second among all drivers. In races without a late restart, his PEER ranks 10th.

Until Blaney (and his Penske team) can prove viable in every race-shaping scenario at every track with playoff representation, he is a championship sleeper, not an outright favorite. While that seems like a jab, it’s actually a good place to be — not many playoff teams can claim themselves as outside favorites without the assistance of some fortuitous bounces — but it was a designation that would’ve been there despite his run to end the regular season.

Blaney acknowledges nothing changed, procedurally or competitively, that would’ve necessitated the team’s perceived breakout.

“You know what? I don’t think I can really point out anything in particular (that changed) over the last month and a half, two months that we’ve been running pretty good,” Blaney said. “Just everything has been kind of clicking and going well.”

A run past the opening round — where he was eliminated from the playoffs last season — would provide him with tracks favorable by different measures. Martinsville (66.67%) and Las Vegas (57.14%) were home to two of his best passing performances (per his adjusted pass efficiency, measuring the percentage of pass encounters going in his favor), while his most recent races on each of the final five tracks on the playoff schedule saw him with top-five speed based on timing and scoring data.

A stat profile containing no weakness is rare in NASCAR. But in its stead, a driver with strong suits on the majority of playoff tracks could do fine in blazing a pathway to the title. Blaney, at the very least, can make that claim. How it manifests in tangible results will dictate its reality as a cogent championship plan.

“I think it’s been nice to finish out the regular season strong, especially with two wins back-to-back right before the start of the playoffs,” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t really had in my other playoff attempts is really a lot of bonus points, and not a lot to really have in your back pocket in case you have a bad race or just kind of an extra cushion, so that stuff is nice to have. But really the focus is the same.

“It’s definitely a better position to be in on our side than where we have been in year’s past. You just hope to utilize it.”

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”