Saturday, Ryan Blaney heads back to Texas Motor Speedway for the first time since claiming the $1 million prize in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race. But this time, the stakes are higher, with what may be his best chance to advance to the Round of 8 hanging in the balance.
“I’m looking forward to this weekend after having success here at the All-Star Race,” Blaney told NASCAR.com. “It definitely brings you confidence. It’s an interesting round. Three different race tracks that we’re going to and everyone’s gonna put a massive emphasis on this weekend because if you can win this one, you’ll be in a good spot for Talladega [Superspeedway].”
Blaney has victories at each of the Round of 12 tracks in his career: Texas, Talladega (twice) and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Still, in a season with 19 winners, he knows that chances to reach Victory Lane are slimmer than ever.
“It just shows the strength of the whole field whether you’re a part of the playoffs or not,” said Blaney. “It shows that anybody can jump up there and win, you’ve seen it all year. I think you’ll continue to see it.”
After a career-best three wins in 2021, Blaney has yet to pull his No. 12 Team Penske Ford into Victory Lane during the first 29 points races this season.
If he accomplishes the feat Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), he will set the modern-era record at No. 20 and be the first to advance to the penultimate round of the playoffs, matching the deepest title run he has ever made.
But this time, there are a lot fewer familiar faces contending for the Bill France Cup.
After Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were eliminated at Bristol Motor Speedway, only three Cup Series champions — Joey Logano (2018), Chase Elliott (2020) and defending champion Kyle Larson — remain among the 12 title hopefuls. Chase Briscoe, teammate Austin Cindric, Daniel Suárez and Ross Chastain are each in the playoffs for the first time.
“It’s definitely been a pretty wild year, I think everyone can agree with that,” said Blaney. “It’s been neat to grow up and be in the Cup Series here for a good while. Definitely not part of the young group anymore, I’d say I’m in the middle-aged group right now. But it’s been cool to, when I first started in Cup, be able to race against a lot of guys I’ve enjoyed watching as a kid.
“You get more experience and you see kids that are your age, when you first got started in Cup that you’ve watched through Trucks and Xfinity, be able to come up and do really well,” said Blaney. “It’s really cool because you can look back on that stuff and remember being in that spot. It’s a neat thing, drivers coming and going, and it’s just been cool to be a part of.”
One of the up-and-coming stars of the sport, Daytona 500 winner Cindric, is contending right alongside veterans Blaney and Logano.
Competing against two teammates could be viewed as a hurdle to his individual championship aspirations, which could be true in the long run. But in the case of the organization’s immediate success, more is better in the eyes of Blaney — at least for now.
“I definitely don’t think it’s a disadvantage by any means,” said Blaney. “It really speaks volumes to have all three of our cars advance out of the first round. I think you can still lean on each other, you still would even if one or two of your cars were out, but it gives you better odds to try to get as many cars to the final four as you can.
“That’s really the neat thing about our sport and having teammates. In every other sport, your teammates, you’re relying on them and working toward the same goal with them. And in this sport, you have teammates but they’re also your competitors, too.”
Nonetheless, he knows there can only be one champion when it is all said and done.
“It’s always kinda been a tricky scenario, especially when the playoffs come. It’s a fine line. You’re all racing and every point matters, even if they’re teammates or not.
“But it does get tougher deeper in the rounds,” said Blaney. “I don’t think you’ll cut anybody any breaks.”