Facing an imposing 22-point deficit, Ryan Blaney and his Team Penske No. 12 bunch might be excused for being slightly on edge for this weekend’s elimination race in the Monster Energy Series playoffs. To hear crew chief Jeremy Bullins describe the team’s current vibe, they’re not.
“No, there’s no reason to panic,” Bullins said Tuesday, ahead of this weekend’s Round of 12 finale at Kansas Speedway. “I’m a firm believer that you’re never at the mercy of one week if you look at the playoff format. The only round where one week dictates what happens is Homestead. Obviously, we had opportunities to get points the last two weeks and we’re in the situation that we’re in and there’s no reason to panic.
“We’re not out of it by any means and we couldn’t be going to a better track for the 12 car, so for us it’s just a matter of preparing the same way we do every week and doing our jobs, and if it’s good enough, great, and if not, we’ll move on and try to win some races before the end of the year.”
A shortage of fuel before an overtime finish last weekend at Talladega left Blaney, Bullins and Co. staring at a 29th-place finish that pushed them below the provisional cut-off line for advancement in the 10-race postseason. They’re joined outside the bubble by teammate Brad Keselowski (-18 points), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson (-26) and Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman (-68).
Though Blaney and Bullins aren’t facing a must-win plight, they likely will have to make up ground in the early stages of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM) and then rely on a strong finish relative to their fellow playoff hopefuls. Though there might be temptation to employ an alternate strategy to target either stage points or a win, Bullins says the No. 12 crew won’t deviate from its standard game plan.
“I think it’s the same as it’s been every other week, honestly,” Bullins said. “I mean, if you look at our approach this season, we’ve led a lot of laps, won some stages and tried to put ourselves in position to win races. It’s no different an approach than any other week for us, to be honest. I know what the situation is and I know people probably expect different, but our approach is how we’re going to prepare for this week (and) is how we prepared for every other week before this one.”
Joey Logano is the only Team Penske driver currently above the cut, holding a moderately comfortable 39-point cushion. Though the spirit of teamwork may not be as evident at Kansas as it is with the assistance of aerodynamic drafting at Talladega, Bullins expects that the three-team effort will collaborate through the weekend, leaning on their practice and qualifying data, plus the help from its alliance with Wood Brothers Racing and driver Paul Menard.
“I think if you look at how we all work together as a team, everybody’s aware of what everybody’s doing from a set-up standpoint,” Bullins said. “Everybody will pay attention to things that their teammates learn. We’ll do all those things like we normally do every week, and just like every other week, when it’s time to go racing, we’ll respect each other and race each other hard but clean and fair. At the end of the day, we’ve all got a job to do and everybody understands that.”
If there’s another advantage, it’s the venue. Blaney made his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut at the Kansas City track in 2014, and he’s taken a liking to it ever since. Blaney finished in the top five in three of his last five Kansas starts, and he’s started from the front row in two of the last three Kansas events.
While Blaney has performed well at the 1.5-mile track, this year’s “Big 3” drivers — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. — have swept the last five Kansas victories, with Harvick and Truex each winning twice and Busch once. Still, Bullins says there’s cause for the No. 12 team’s optimism that goes beyond the 140 total laps that Blaney has led in his last three Kansas efforts.
“I think our intermediate program is really strong. I think we’ve developed some really good set-up information for there,” Bullins said. “I think the track fits Ryan’s driving style and he likes the fastest intermediates — Kansas, Michigan and places like that, we tend to be strong at, places where you’re in the throttle a lot and get to run really fast and can move around the race track. It all just kind of works together to become successful there. Given the situation, there’s no other track I would rather go to this week than Kansas.”