FORT WORTH, Texas — A shrewd pit call early and a white-knuckle moment late in Sunday’s race moved Ryan Blaney closer to reaching his first Cup championship finale.
Blaney entered Texas Motor Speedway holding the final transfer spot to next month’s title race by one point. He left the track with a 17-point cushion.
His 16-point gain on the cutline was the largest among the playoff drivers who have yet to secure a place in the Nov. 7 championship event at Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Larson advanced with his Texas win. Three spots will be determined in the final two races of this round.
While Blaney’s cushion could collapse with one miscue or moment of misfortune, what happened in Texas may be looked upon as the key to advancing.
The first big moment came after the 15-car crash that brought out a caution on Lap 32 of the 334-lap race. Teams had pitted after the Lap 25 competition caution, so the leaders were not interested in relinquishing track position to top off on fuel.
Blaney was 12th after the caution and ahead of only two playoff drivers. Teammate Brad Keselowski was 15th and Kyle Busch suffered minor damage trying to avoid the melee on the backstretch and had to pit for repairs.
Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, examined his options.
“When we looked at it and were talking about it with the engineers,” Gordon told NBC Sports, “we felt like we were kind of at the break where people behind us would come top off because they didn’t feel like they were going to lose a lot of track position.”
Gordon called Blaney to pit for fuel on Lap 38.
Blaney admits it was a “pretty gutsy decision” by Gordon.
Blaney restarted 15th, losing only three positions in the move. He still didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end of the first stage. Gordon estimated Blaney’s car would be two or three laps short.
The team didn’t look to conserve fuel shortly after the restart. The longer the green-flag run went, the decision was made to back off. It helped that Blaney was close enough to Chase Elliott that he could draft off Elliott’s car and conserve fuel.
As the leaders began to pit for fuel about 10 laps from the end of the stage, Blaney throttled back, secure he would be second. He wasn’t close enough to Busch, who won the stage.
“You want to win, but I’d rather finish second and take nine stage points and be able to continue on, then to try to gamble and try to outrun (Busch) at that point,” Gordon said.
Blaney went on to score eight points in the second stage.
The other critical moment in the race came with about 25 laps to go.
When Denny Hamlin drifted high, Blaney moved forward, but he soon had Hamlin to his outside and Kevin Harvick on his inside. They ran three-wide for nearly a lap.
“I knew I wasn’t going to back out,” Blaney said after finishing sixth. “(Hamlin and Harvick) weren’t going to back out. I was in the middle, so I was kind of in the worst spot possible, and I wasn’t going to lift.
“You’ve just got to take it and see what happens. You put a whole hard day together and you don’t want to wreck or ruin your day, but, at the same time, you don’t want … to lift and give up a bunch of spots.”
Blaney and Hamlin made contact, which led to a tire rub for Hamlin. That tire rub caused Hamlin to spin and bring out a caution.
“You’ve got to be able to step it up at those late-race restarts,” Blaney said. “Those are the positions you put yourself in where it can kind of make and break you.”
Brad Keselowski said before Sunday’s race that he and his team felt they needed to score at least 110-120 points in this round to return to the championship race. That’s provided he didn’t advance by winning a race.
Keselowski scored 40 points, which included seven stage points, at Texas. He is 15 points behind Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot.
“Three runs like today and we’ll be in Phoenix,” Keselowski said.
He did the same strategy as teammate Ryan Blaney in the first stage, topping off for fuel on Lap 38 to make it to end of the stage. Keselowski, though, managed to finish only 10th and score one point in that stage.
Keselowski’s fourth-place finish was his best result on a 1.5-mile track since placing second in the All-Star Race at Texas in the same car. One difference was that event had a different race package than Sunday’s race.
“We were still able to learn a few things at the All-Star Race,” crew chief Jeremy Bullins told NBC Sports.
Another key factor in Keselowski’s day was his pit crew. His crew gained him two spots during a stop in the second stage, helping Keselowski score six points. The pit crew got him two more spots during a stop after the end of the second stage, putting Keselowski third in the lineup.
“Our pit crew has been crushing it for several months now,” Bullins said.
Kyle Busch wasn’t happy in the car for a good part of Sunday’s race and also expressed his displeasure out of it after finishing eighth.
Asked about the level of respect between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers, Busch expressed his frustration.
“There’s a complete lack of respect everywhere, all over the place, so it doesn’t matter if it’s a playoff driver or a non-playoff driver,” Busch said. “The way all this has gone on the last four or five years with the newer generation coming in has completely ruined it from what it used to be.
“It might be exciting for the fans, but all you get is more torn up stuff. Next year, these car owners are not going to enjoy paying the bills on that new car, I guarantee you.”
Rule changes in recent years have been made to keep the cars closer together, particularly at 1.5-mile tracks. It has turned restarts into free-for-alls. Etiquette has become antiquated because of the way the rules have forced drivers to change their habits.
Ryan Blaney, 27, is a member of the newer generation. He is in his sixth full season. He understands how much the sport has changed.
“It just calls for being super aggressive because you have to take every inch you can,” Blaney said, “because you’re not going to get it back if you don’t make the move.”
Denny Hamlin confirmed before Sunday’s race that a potential deal to acquire a charter from Front Row Motorsports had fallen apart.
Hamlin seeks a charter for 23XI Racing’s second car next season. Kurt Busch will join the organization and be Bubba Wallace‘s teammate.
“We’re going to race,” Hamlin said of the second car. “It’s TBD whether we have (a charter) or not.”
Hamlin said that the deal breaking off was “definitely disappointing, for sure, but things are out of our control.”
23XI Racing and GMS Racing are both seeking charters for next season.