Ryan Blaney is the only NASCAR Cup Series driver to reach the playoffs without a win. With three races left to go in the season, he’s still winless.
The winless mystery is deepened by the fact that Blaney is having a good year by most standard metrics.
Blaney leads the Cup Series in stage wins with eight. Those wins span Phoenix in March to last week at Las Vegas. They include superspeedways, intermediate tracks, road courses and short tracks.
The No. 12 car has speed. Blaney’s three poles tie (with five other drivers) for second place. Christopher Bell leads with four. NASCAR’s loop data ranks Blaney second for green-flag speed over the season, behind only Ross Chastain.
Blaney’s 527 laps led puts him seventh in this metric. He has led laps in 24 of the 33 races thus far.
Blaney ranks second in average running position at 12.2.
He ties with Chastain for third in average finish position (14.2)
He ties with Joey Logano for fourth in average starting position (10.5)
His 15 top-10 finishes tie him (with four other drivers) for fifth place.
I summed up Blaney’s 2021 and 2022 finishes in the graph below. Wins are in maroon, second- through fifth-place finishes in dark blue, etc.
Blaney has the same number of top 10s this year as last. But last year included three wins.
He does have more finishes of 15th or worse. For example, In 2021, he had seven finishes worse than 20th. This year, he has 13.
The usual reasons don’t apply
The common factors that explain why other drivers didn’t make the playoffs or have fallen out don’t apply to Blaney.
He and his team have only four penalties this year, the lowest of any full-time driver. Two of the four (speeding and too many crew over the wall at Bristol) were intentional.
Blaney ranks 21st for involvement in caution-causing accidents or spins with nine accidents and two spins. That’s compared to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Kyle Busch, who have 17 total accidents and spins each.
Why Blaney isn’t winning races
Blaney’s challenges fall into three categories not obvious from standard stats: accidents and spins that didn’t cause cautions, on-track tire issues and pit road problems.
Non-caution-causing contact affected Blaney in five additional races. For example, Blaney hit the wall on the final lap of the spring Atlanta race while running in the top three. He finished 17th after starting second and posting an average running position of 8.1.
He also experienced contact at Sonoma, the Indy road course, the fall Darlington race and the Roval.
On-track tire issues affected Blaney four times this year — three times while running in the top five.
A left-rear tire blew at Gateway while Blaney was running third.
He lost a tire at Pocono while running fifth.
A right-front tire blew at Bristol while Blaney was again running fifth. He had a flat right rear later in the race.
Pit road issues continue to introduce hindrances.
At Fontana, the team had three slow pit stops. Two dropped Blaney from third to 16th. The third slow stop dropped him from second to ninth.
A nut came loose from a tire-changer’s gun at Phoenix, again dropping Blaney from second to ninth.
A bad pit stop at the spring Atlanta race required an unscheduled additional pitstop.
Blaney stalled his car leaving pit road at Indy.
At both fall Darlington and fall Kansas, the No. 12 had to re-pit to tighten loose wheels.
After changing a flat right-front tire at Bristol, the new left-rear wheel came off as Blaney left his pit box. As a result, crew chief Jonathan Hassler won’t be back on the box until Martinsville.
And, at the fall Talladega race, Blaney’s radio had to be repaired on pit road immediately before the green flag.
I know: A radio repair. Really?
Racing: A physical and mental challenge
Confidence is one of the most important tools in a driver’s arsenal.
A driver needs confidence in how deep he can drive into a turn and know the car will stick. Confidence he — and the driver next to him — can make a move without the car spinning out.
He needs to be certain that, when he comes onto pit road, all four wheels will come off the car without delay and all four of their replacements will stay on when he leaves. And that he won’t be sitting on pit road while everyone else makes parade laps because his radio isn’t working.
Out of Blaney’s 33 races, only 12 have not involved accidents, spins, penalties, tire issues or pit road problems. And no, I’m not including the radio in that count.
Some of these problems arise from having a new car — any new car. Uncertainty would be an issue even if the Next Gen were the Platonic ideal of a racecar. Think about the moment of panic when a hard rain hits and you’re in a rental car trying to locate the wiper switch without taking your eyes off the road.
The data suggest to me that the best way to optimize for a Blaney win is for the team to double down on the things it has control over so that the driver is as confident as possible in pushing the car.