Friday 5: Playoff drive carries over to this year for reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney

Reigning Cup champion Ryan Blaney is winless and has only one playoff point a quarter of the way through the NASCAR Cup season, yet he’s better off than he was at this time a year ago.

That may be hard to see with William Byron’s three wins gaining attention, Chase Elliott returning to Victory Lane and Denny Hamlin winning twice this season.

But don’t discount Blaney as the series returns to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for the first time since he won last fall’s playoff race.

He and teammate Joey Logano have won the past two Cup championships for Team Penske. Neither driver had won or scored a playoff point at this point of the year in their championship season.

While it would appear that Blaney’s start to this season is similar to last year, there are differences. Blaney has four top-five results — including a runner-up finish by 0.003 seconds to Daniel Suarez at Atlanta — compared to one top five at this time last year. Blaney also has 70 stage points this season compared to 33 at this time last year.

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But Blaney sees more.

“I feel like we’re in even a better spot than we were last year at this time,” he said in response to a question from NBC Sports. “I feel like we’ve done a better job this year of persevering through these races and just getting better and really digging in.

“I feel like last year it took us a little while. We ended last year in this spot like the last couple months of really persevering and digging down and figuring things out, and we’ve carried that over to this year.

“There are a handful of races where we’ve run top five in that we weren’t top five to start the race and we just bent down and gritted our teeth and we figured it out and got better through the race and figured out how to get good finishes. That’s how you have to do it. That’s what this team does really well.”

Three races are notable for how Blaney finished better than he ran in the race.

At Martinsville, Blaney had an average running position of 12.2 and finished fifth.

At Las Vegas, he had an average running position of 8.6 and finished third.

At Phoenix, Blaney had an average running position of 9.2 and placed fifth.

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“We just figured out how to be better and executed and got our car faster and got back to looking at the bigger picture of, ‘What do I need to be good at mile 300?’ as opposed to I’m not very good right now it’s going to take some steps to get there,” Blaney said.

Since the start of last year’s playoffs, Blaney has two wins, eight top-five finishes and 10 top 10s in 19 races. That’s comparable to Kyle Larson, who has three wins, nine top fives and 10 top 10s in the same stretch.

Blaney will be among the favorites this weekend and could give Ford its first win of the season. Fords won three of the six races at drafting style tracks last season (Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta).

Blaney has finished no worse than second in his last three Talladega starts.

“The speedways have been pretty good for the Fords for a while,” Blaney said. “Ever since I’ve been in the Cup Series I feel like we’ve always been super strong and really been able to compete and try to control the race.

“That’s one thing we’ve always talked about is how can we control the race, whether it’s with our numbers in the Ford camp, the strategy, how can we just control the first handful of rows.”

2. More practice?

In recent weeks, the topic of practice time has come up more often. Should NASCAR decide to increase the amount of practice, next year could be the time to do so for multiple reasons.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR typically had two 50-minute practice sessions in Cup. At times, the series had three practice sessions on a weekend.

NASCAR cut practice and qualifying in 2020 when the sport returned during the pandemic. While practice has returned since, it’s been limited at most tracks. Part of the reasoning has been to help team owners save money.

AUTO: APR 23 NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500
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NASCAR Cup, Xfinity weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

NASCAR teams compete at a drafting style track for the third time this season.

NASCAR’s charter agreement with teams expires after this season. Teams seek to continue the charter system and receive more money so they are not as reliant on sponsorship to fund the organization.

Provided teams receive enough additional money beginning next year, that could help offset extra costs with longer practices. Another key is the new media rights deal.

Amazon Prime will stream practice and qualifying for the first 19 Cup races next year except the Busch Light Clash, Daytona 500 and All-Star Race. Those sessions will be on Fox Sports.

Warner Bros. Discovery will stream all Cup practices and qualifying sessions for the final 19 events of the season on Max and also broadcast those sessions on TruTV.

With the emphasis on streaming practice and qualifying, they may not have to always fall into a prescribed TV block. That could give NASCAR the freedom to expand those sessions if officials decide there is a need to do so.

“I don’t see how we saved any money getting rid of practice,” said Brad Keselowski, co-owner of RFK Racing. “Not from a team perspective. Maybe there was some savings … in the industry that I’m not aware of, but there hasn’t been a significant cost savings. We’ve reallocated it in a lot of ways to other demands. It’s hard for me to understand the value proposition today to not have practice.”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, disagreed with Keselowski’s comment, saying on his Actions Detrimental podcast: “I know for a fact Joe Gibbs Racing saved significant money when we cut practice. 23XI would be more than happy to go back to full practice and qualifying if we just got our damn expenses covered, but we’re not.”

Jimmie Johnson, co-owner of Legacy MC said last week at Texas, ahead of his second race of the year in the No. 84 car, that he’d like more practice.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “The practices are not long enough to make a meaningful change to the car. It is tough to develop. I certainly understand and appreciate the effort for cost savings. We are not going to sit still. Now we’ve put so much reliance on our simulation, and what is tricky with simulation is trying to feed the pipeline of data, and the pipeline of information so that your simulation works correctly and crosses over to the real world, and that the simulator that you drive crosses over to the real world.

“It is just really tough with how little track time there is for all teams to benefit that. Because as you unload, that is what you have, and so the bigger teams with more resources, really resources far and wide to unload on is where it is at. It affects the smaller teams that are trying to – that don’t have the access that they need, that are trying to feed their pipeline and make good decisions. It just continues to make that a more challenging dynamic, and then you think of new teams, new drivers.

“There is just a lot of layers there, that I think more track time would benefit. It doesn’t need to be what it once was with four hours of track time, but double the track time that we have now – whether it is was 40 minutes or 45 minutes – I think you could really help the field in its entirety be more efficient with their spending, because right now, you are just throwing darts hoping you are spending the right way, on the right things.”

3. Quarter mark observations

With nine of 36 Cup races complete, the season has run a quarter of the races.

Parity is slipping away in the series. Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have combined to win eight of the first nine races. The exception is Daniel Suarez’s victory at Atlanta.

Also, Hendrick and JGR drivers have scored 53.3% of the top-five finishes this season. Last year at this time, Hendrick and JGR drivers had collected 42.2% of the top fives.

Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have led 69.5% of the laps run this year. Last season at this time, the two organizations combined to lead 53.5% of the laps run.

NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying
NASCAR: Cup Practice & Qualifying

Good news, bad news for NASCAR Cup teams entering Talladega weekend

Chase Briscoe’s recent run has the Stewart-Haas Racing driver in a playoff spot.

Five drivers who were in the playoffs last year are not in a playoff spot at this point in the season. They are Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell and Kevin Harvick, who no longer is driving and is a part of the Fox broadcast booth.

Five drivers who did not make last year's playoffs who are in a playoff spot now are Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe and Ty Gibbs. Of those five, two are from Hendrick Motorsports (Elliott and Bowman) and one is from Joe Gibbs Racing (Gibbs).

Not surprisingly, Elliott has made the biggest gain in the points from this time a year ago. He was 31st after missing six races due to an injury suffered in a snowboarding accident. He enters this weekend at Talladega fourth in the standings, gaining 27 spots.

Other big gainers from this time a year ago: Ty Gibbs has moved up 14 spots to sixth, Bubba Wallace has climbed 13 positions to ninth, William Byron has gained 10 spots to fifth and Erik Jones has moved up nine positions to 19th.

4. Challenges of going between Cup and Xfinity cars

Xfinity Series driver Austin Hill made his first Cup start of the season last weekend at Texas. It was his his seventh Cup start. All have taken place with the Next Gen car.

Hill can appreciate the challenges of moving from the Xfinity car to the Cup car.

“The biggest difference with the Cup car that I kind of struggled with, especially in practice, qualifying and really the whole race … just knowing where the limit of the right rear tire is,” he said. “With the Xfinity car, you can lean on the right rear quarter … you can yaw the car out and use that to really lean on the right rear quarter and use the air.

“With the Cup car you just don’t really have much of that. If you start to feel like you’re ever stepping it out, it just seems like it’s very on edge, hard to tell where the right rear tire is and where you’re going to overslip it and I think that’s why you saw a lot of guys at Texas overstep the boundary. I was trying to keep up with that.”

He also talked about how much more he was on the throttle in a Cup car at Texas compared to his Xfinity car. Hill noted that the cars reacted differently in traffic.

“Dirty air is a massive issue on the Cup side. I made the joke in our Monday meeting (at Richard Childress Racing) that on our side, the Xfinity side, we should never complain about dirty air because it is like totally different.”

5. Drought busting

Thirteen times a driver has ended a winless streak of at least 36 races at Talladega.

Aric Almirola owns the record for ending the longest winless drought at 149 races when he won there in October 2018.

The last time a driver broke a winless drought of at least 36 races at Talladega was Ryan Blaney. He snapped a 37-race winless streak in October 2019.

Among those with winless droughts entering this weekend are Justin Haley (114-race winless drought) Brad Keselowski (107), Austin Cindric (80), Chase Briscoe (77), Alex Bowman (70), Austin Dillon (55), Erik Jones (54), Bubba Wallace 52) and Joey Logano (40).