Although Ryan Blaney clinched a playoff berth in early June, the realization that he has an opportunity to chase a championship recently hit him anew.
The moment came as Blaney and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 team took part in an organizational test two weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. The 1.5-miler hosts the first race of the NASCAR post-season and Blaney, who will compete for the title in just his sophomore season, couldn’t help but be struck by what would be on the line when he returns.
“I did have that moment a little bit where, hey, next time we’re at this race track we’re starting our 10-week run,” Blaney told RACER. “I’ve never been in that spot before. We didn’t make the playoffs last year.”
As such, Blaney admitted being in the playoffs will change his approach to Chicago race weekend.
“You’re almost a little more aggressive when you’re not in the playoffs at that race because you can afford to be; you just don’t have to worry about the next 10 weeks or transferring to the next round,” said Blaney. “Now, being locked in, it is a different mindset as far as you can’t take dumb chances or put yourself in a bad spot to get behind the eight-ball early in any round.
“People say the first round is easy… well, it’s not really that easy. Jimmie Johnson got knocked out of the first round a couple years back, and that was pretty shocking to see. It’s tough.”
The test itself turned out to be an advantage for Blaney and company. With the opportunity to work on several different areas of the car, Blaney and crew chief Jeremy Bullins ended up with a notebook of things that will and will not work for the Sept. 17 race.
Without the benefit of a test, Blaney might have shown up next month with a baseline setup off the mark. Instead, feeling as though “a good little bit” was learned, Blaney expects to be decent at Chicago.
“We tried some things we thought were going to be really good, and it turned out to be not as good as we thought – or not good at all,” Blaney said. “That’s nice to kind of set in stone, because there’s so much simulation that goes on nowadays, whether it’s the Ford sim or engineers, new changes with the race car aero-wise or balance-wise, you can never really 100 percent say if it’s better or worse unless you get out on the race track. [So] it’s always nice to get a clear answer on those.”
With the final off-weekend of the campaign now in the rearview, two races remain in the regular season. On the eve of the most important part of the year, however, Blaney isn’t looking to do anything different over the next few weeks.
Gambling for wins is still an option; something Blaney tried unsuccessfully at Watkins Glen. But he knows race wins as well as stage wins help build a driver’s stock for the playoffs, and he can afford to take those chances. Through a victory (five points) and three stage wins (three points), Blaney is sitting on eight playoff points.
Blaney is also sitting behind the wheel of a very fast car. Over the last several weeks, Blaney’s surge in speed has not gone unnoticed. At Bristol, it was a topic of conversation in the garage when comparing the No. 21 with its Team Penske teammates the Nos. 2 and 22.
While Blaney said his team is not doing anything different, he has been near the top of the speed charts in practice sessions and has qualified in the top 10 in eight of the last 10 races. And yet for as fast as Blaney has been, his finishes have been all over the results sheet.
“It’s kind of been the trend all year,” said Blaney. “We do have ups and downs a lot, and I think if we can put together solid weeks we’re going to run up front a lot. But we really haven’t done anything different [lately]. I think it’s just everyone getting really comfortable with each other.
“Our cars are getting better and better; we’re always finding new things. Between my car and the 2 [Brad Keselowski] and the 22 [Joey Logano], we’re all getting better and better. Just have to clean up some stuff.”
Statistically, Blaney is on track to crush is rookie records. While already matching his season-bests of top 10 and top-five finishes, Blaney has also surpassed his previous high of laps led (260 in 24 races this year to 11 all last year), along with earning his first career pole and win.
Does this team now have what it takes to get through Chicago and win a championship? Blaney isn’t about to say no.
“I honestly believe when we’re at our best we’ve shown it this year, with winning a race and running up front a bunch of times,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs; I feel like that’s the biggest challenge going into these 10 weeks – trying to be consistent. Our cars have been pretty good everywhere we go, it’s just things going wrong or not getting the runs we deserve, and I think that’s something we can hopefully clean up.
“But I do think this team has what it takes. I think our cars are getting to be more competitive to where they need to be. Everyone talks about the [Joe] Gibbs and the Furniture Row cars being super-fast, and they are, [but] I think we’ve gotten pretty close to catching up to them. We’ll find out in a few weeks.”