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
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
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
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.

Read more about NASCAR

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Dr. Diandra: Can Ryan Blaney close in on the playoffs? originally appeared on NBCSports.com