Dr. Diandra: Can Ryan Blaney close in on the playoffs?

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Ryan Blaney will most likely make the playoffs on points, but with the regular season winding to close, a win would certainly make it easier for him to sleep at night. The chances of having 16 different regular-season winners are small, but they’re not zero.

It’s not unprecedented for the Penske driver to win his first race late in the year. Blaney made the playoffs on points in 2018 and 2019. His first wins came in races number 35 and 31, respectively.

Last year, Blaney earned his playoff spot early, at Atlanta. His other wins that year were the last two races of the regular season.

And don’t forget that he won this year’s All-Star Race.

Don’t write him off until the haulers leave Daytona.

Blaney in 2022

Blaney’s 2022 season has been up and down, as the graph below shows.

The week-by-week rank and finishing position for Ryan Blaney

He’s earned seven finishes between second and fifth places and 10 top-10 finishes. Those seven P2-P5 finishes are only one less than he had in all of 2021.

Aside from finishes, Blaney is having an outstanding season. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Blaney ties with Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell for most poles with three.
  • He’s in second place in average running position at 11.0. He trails only Chase Elliott, whose current average running position is 10.2.
  • Blaney ranks second in average starting position (8.95), behind only Kyle Larson (8.43).
  • He holds second place in quality passes with 1,298. Elliott leads with 1,403.

The third-place-in-points driver has a series of third places as well.

  • Blaney is third in season driver rating behind Elliott and Ross Chastain.
  • He’s third in overall green-flag speed, beaten again by Elliott and Chastain.
  • Blaney’s average finish position of 13.1 trails only Elliott and Chastain.
  • He has the third-highest percentage of laps run in the top 15 with 73.1 percent.

Blaney also has five stage wins, and he’s led laps at more tracks than anyone else in 2022. The only places he hasn’t led laps are the Bristol dirt race, Darlington, Sonoma, Loudon and Pocono. The second-ranking drivers in the list of laps led at different tracks are Larson, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch

But Blaney’s future — even if he does make the playoffs — is clouded by some significant negatives.

  • Blaney has yet to finish higher than third this season.
  • His last points win was 31 races ago, in the 2021 summer Daytona race.
  • The list of five tracks where he hasn’t led laps includes the two most recent tracks raced. He finished out of the top 15 at both races.
  • Although Blaney’s had three poles, he hasn’t earned a pole since Richmond.
  • His recent performance is on a down cycle. He has finished outside of the top 10 in three of the last four races.
  • Blaney is one of three drivers in the top 10 in points without a win.

Blaney was a contender for the regular-season points championship, but his recent slump overlapped Elliott’s string of five consecutive top-two finishes. Most concerning is that Blaney has lost 49 points to Martin Truex Jr. in the last two races. Truex is the last driver who will make the playoffs on points if there are no new playoff-eligible winners.

Blaney’s manufacturer, Ford, is struggling with the Next Gen car. The Blue Oval has just four wins in 21 races this year: two from Logano and one each from Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.

Despite being winless, I still rank Blaney as Ford’s top driver. Logano’s season-at-a-glance graph is similar to the other Ford winners this year: More down than up, even though the ups are higher than Blaney’s. Logano’s average finishing average is 15.9 compared to Blaney’s 13.1.

The week-by-week rank and finishing position for Joey Logano

Blaney edges out Kevin Harvick as the stronger driver. While their finishing averages are comparable, Blaney has a far better starting average.

Why isn’t Blaney winning races?

Harvick’s challenge this year has been qualifying, but that’s not an issue for Blaney. In addition to everything mentioned above, Blaney is tied for fifth in lead-lap finishes, is fourth in top fives, seventh in top 10s and eighth in fastest laps.

It’s hard to find stats where Blaney is low on the list.

But there is one.

The “closers” stat measures a driver’s running position at the 90 percent mark of a race relative to the driver’s finishing position. In other words, it measures how many positions a driver gains — or loses — in the last 10 percent of a race.

The next graph shows the total number of positions gained or lost in the last 10 percent of all 21 races this season. I included only the eight drivers with an average finishing position less than 15, as these drivers are Blaney’s peer group.

A vertical bar graph showing the positions gained or lost during the last 10% of races in the 2022 season

Blaney has a net loss of 20 positions in the last 10 percent of races this season. That’s not the worst in that statistical column, but only eight full-time drivers rank below Blaney in closing. Relative to other Ford drivers, Blaney is ahead of Harvick (-21), Briscoe (-34) and Logano (-57).

Blaney lost 14 positions in the last 10 percent of the race at Atlanta, 11 positions at Fontana and 10 at Darlington. The most positions he gained in the closing laps of a single race was eight, at Nashville.

Contrast those numbers with current frontrunner Elliott, who’s gained 25 positions over the same laps.

The Future

Blaney is on a downswing, but his downswings haven’t lasted more than a few races this season. There is plenty of time for him to win before the playoffs, if not in the playoffs.

Sunday’s second race at the Indianapolis road course might be one of Blaney’s best chances to win. Toyota has struggled at road courses this year, giving Blaney a possible advantage versus Truex.

Blaney has also earned the most points on road courses this year — 115. He tops Chastain, second with 106 points, and Elliott, who is third with 104 points.

NASCAR designed the current playoff system to balance wins and consistency. It’s impossible to tell at this point whether the wider distribution of wins is inherent to the Next Gen car or is simply a consequence of introducing a new car.

Some fans want enough winners — at least 17 — so that simply winning isn’t enough to get into the playoffs. The 2022 playoffs will already exclude at least one likely top-10-in-points driver in favor of drivers with as few as four top-10 finishes in 21 races.

If this pattern continues, NASCAR may have to re-examine the format and decide whether the balance has shifted a little too far to wins.

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.