There will be a battle within the bigger battle in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
Entering the 200-mile race over Indy’s 2.4-mile road course, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. hold the 15th and 16th positions on the potential Cup Series playoff list. Fourteen drivers have earned playoff spots by winning races; Blaney and Truex currently qualify on points.
With five races remaining in the regular season, it’s possible that a new winner (or more than one) can join the list by reaching victory lane. If not, Blaney, Truex and drivers just below the cutoff line (currently Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola) will be shooting to qualify via points.
Blaney and Truex have had disappointing seasons. Blaney has had seven top-five finishes but none in the top two. Truex hasn’t reached the top three. His only top fives are a pair of fourths and a fifth.
Truex, 16th in the standings, gained on Blaney last week and starts Sunday’s race 22 points behind the Ford driver. Truex is 83 points in front of Harvick, the first driver out of the playoff list.
“Obviously, it’s not the spot we want to be in,” Truex told NBC Sports Saturday. “We’d love to have a win by now and feel like we should have, but it’s just been one of those seasons where when we have cars good enough to win, we haven’t done all the other things right. We’ve had some bad luck, as well. But that’s part of racing.
“We just have to take advantage of the opportunities when we have them, and we haven’t been able to do that. (Sunday is) gonna be a tough day, but we’ll battle through it and try to get the best out of what we can.”
Truex was not happy with his qualifying run. He’ll start 25th. Blaney was in the final qualifying session Saturday and will start sixth.
“Our race with Martin — he’s closed the gap up pretty good,” Blaney said. “The easiest but hardest thing to do is win, and I could stop talking about it, but we’ve been trying all year. Hopefully, we can get it done and not have to worry about it, but you just have to be in the back of your head of realizing that you’re still points-racing Martin – and we are. … You don’t want to be on the bubble if there’s no new winners, and obviously you want to try and win the race, so it’s a balancing act, especially the two road courses that we have.”
Pit strategy could decide which teams reach the playoffs, and sometimes there’s a gamble between racing for the win and playing it safe to accumulate more points.
“Do you pit? Do you take the stage points to try to keep a good gap to (Truex), or if you think your car can win do you try to cycle to the lead?” Blaney said “So, it’s kind of situational, I feel like. We talk about all these scenarios throughout the week and in our pre-race meetings, but at the end of the day the main focus is trying to win the race and just doing all you can to try and make that one happen.
“At the end of the day, it’s (crew chief Jonathan Hassler’s) call and what he thinks is best, but he trusts me enough to where I have input, too. If I think, ‘Hey, I don’t know if we can win this race, let’s maybe try to get all the stage points we can.’ He trusts me, and I trust him. A lot of those discussions are throughout the race of kind of what’s happening in the moment, but you do make all these plans throughout the week – he and I and our engineers — of what we’re thinking baseline, and then you can modify plans off of that.”
Truex, who won the Cup championship in 2017, has gotten weary of answering the “When are you going to win?” question.
“We try to win every week,” he said. “And you know, if you can’t win the race, if you can run second or third or fourth, you do that. You try to always maximize your day. That’s just what we do. That’s what you have to do in the sport as a professional. So yeah, hell, I’d love to win a race. I’d love to win (Sunday). And hopefully we can, but worrying about it doesn’t make it happen.
“You know, we just need to do our jobs. We need to be smarter about things we’re doing and making decisions. And we’ve got to be perfect — execute. So no mistakes, and I gotta do my job. And we all got to do our jobs, as good as we can. And hopefully, it’s good enough to win before the playoffs.”