FORT WORTH, Texas — A shrewd pit call early and a white-knuckle moment late in Sunday’s race moved Ryan Blaney closer to reaching his first Cup championship finale.
Blaney entered Texas Motor Speedway holding the final transfer spot to next month’s title race by one point. He left the track with a 17-point cushion.
His 16-point gain on the cutline was the largest among the playoff drivers who have yet to secure a place in the Nov. 7 championship event at Phoenix Raceway. Kyle Larson advanced with his Texas win. Three spots will be determined in the final two races of this round.
While Blaney’s cushion could collapse with one miscue or moment of misfortune, what happened in Texas may be looked upon as the key to advancing.
The first big moment came after the 15-car crash that brought out a caution on Lap 32 of the 334-lap race. Teams had pitted after the Lap 25 competition caution, so the leaders were not interested in relinquishing track position to top off on fuel.
Blaney was 12th after the caution and ahead of only two playoff drivers. Teammate Brad Keselowski was 15th and Kyle Busch suffered minor damage trying to avoid the melee on the backstretch and had to pit for repairs.
Blaney’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, examined his options.
“When we looked at it and were talking about it with the engineers,” Gordon told NBC Sports, “we felt like we were kind of at the break where people behind us would come top off because they didn’t feel like they were going to lose a lot of track position.”
Gordon called Blaney to pit for fuel on Lap 38.
Blaney admits it was a “pretty gutsy decision” by Gordon.
Blaney restarted 15th, losing only three positions in the move. He still didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end of the first stage. Gordon estimated Blaney’s car would be two or three laps short.
The team didn’t look to conserve fuel shortly after the restart. The longer the green-flag run went, the decision was made to back off. It helped that Blaney was close enough to Chase Elliott that he could draft off Elliott’s car and conserve fuel.
As the leaders began to pit for fuel about 10 laps from the end of the stage, Blaney throttled back, secure he would be second. He wasn’t close enough to Busch, who won the stage.
“You want to win, but I’d rather finish second and take nine stage points and be able to continue on, then to try to gamble and try to outrun (Busch) at that point,” Gordon said.
Blaney went on to score eight points in the second stage.
The other critical moment in the race came with about 25 laps to go.
When Denny Hamlin drifted high, Blaney moved forward, but he soon had Hamlin to his outside and Kevin Harvick on his inside. They ran three-wide for nearly a lap.
“I knew I wasn’t going to back out,” Blaney said after finishing sixth. “(Hamlin and Harvick) weren’t going to back out. I was in the middle, so I was kind of in the worst spot possible, and I wasn’t going to lift.
“You’ve just got to take it and see what happens. You put a whole hard day together and you don’t want to wreck or ruin your day, but, at the same time, you don’t want … to lift and give up a bunch of spots.”
Blaney and Hamlin made contact, which led to a tire rub for Hamlin. That tire rub caused Hamlin to spin and bring out a caution.
“You’ve got to be able to step it up at those late-race restarts,” Blaney said. “Those are the positions you put yourself in where it can kind of make and break you.”
TEXAS TAKEAWAYS: KEY MOVES COULD LEAD RYAN BLANEY TO CHAMPIONSHIP RACE