After a breakthrough victory in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series event at Talladega Superspeedway, Ryan Blaney and the No. 12 Penske Ford Mustang Team are officially through to the ‘Round of 8’ in the NASCAR Playoffs.
The victory allows Blaney, who entered Sunday’s 500-mile event at Talladega six points below the cutline, the chance to breathe easy, as the series contests another historically chaotic event at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL.
But does this momentum and a guaranteed spot in the ‘Round of 8’ help his chances of taking the title at Phoenix?
Blaney advancing to the ‘Round of 8’ isn’t necessarily a surprise based on prior history. The 29-year-old driver has been successful in moving to the third round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and five times overall in his NASCAR Cup Series career.
This year, however, hasn’t been a typical season for Team Penske. As several of the Ford teams have improved as the season has progressed, the usually rock-solid Team Penske organization has struggled to find speed across its three in-house teams, especially on the intermediate tracks.
The team has seen disappointment with defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano out of the Championship fight after Bristol, and sophomore driver Austin Cindric missed the Playoffs entirely.
This ultimately leaves Blaney as the only Team Penske driver still in contention for the championship, something that the eight-year veteran of the NASCAR Cup Series has yet to experience throughout his career. To make it through to the race at Phoenix, Blaney knows his team needs to be flawless, reflecting on last year’s ‘Round of 8’ run where driver error cost them a chance at the championship.
“You just hope to learn from that stuff and if you’re in the same position, you try to just think about it a little bit more differently and what can you do to alter that outcome and not put yourself in a bind like that and are hopefully running well enough like we were last year to be in those spots again,” Blaney said in a media availability at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
“When you make mistakes you hope you learn from them you have to learn to move on from them but you have to learn from them first and it’s nice to be able to have a go at it here in the Round of 8 and see if we can do a little bit better job this time.”
Though this is a pressure-filled situation for the 12 team, there are positives. The final two rounds of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs have tracks that play to Blaney’s strengths, finding past success at Las Vegas, Homestead, Martinsville, and Phoenix, all of which will be instrumental in winning the title.
Of the four tracks that stand between Blaney and a championship trophy, Las Vegas has been the most hit-or-miss, with two finishes worse than 25th in his last three starts – although both a result of crash damage. Before that, Team Penske showed strength, with three top-five and four top-10 finishes in his five prior starts.
The goal for that team is to go to Vegas and knock it out of the park, knowing historically how important that win can be in the playoffs.
“It’s huge, having that prep time for two weeks, nothing else on your mind,” Blaney said, “Joey was able to do it with that group last year and then you saw what happened.”
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Kyle Larson, was another driver who was able to win the Vegas playoff race, gaining a critical advantage to focus all their efforts on the race at Phoenix to close out the season.
With their past success at the track, the No. 12 Crew Chief, Jonathan Hassler notes another critical advantage the team has heading into the ‘Round of 8’.
“I’m excited for sure to go to Vegas. A rough track seems to be one of our strengths. Obviously, it has a lot of similarities to Charlotte, so yeah, we’re just going to keep working and if we have a chance to get to Phoenix, Ryan is as good there as anybody else,” he shared last week at Talladega Superspeedway.
Hassler is right, last year the No. 22 team brought a rocket to Phoenix Raceway for Logano. Phoenix is arguably one of Blaney’s best tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, and it’s a track where the driver has four consecutive finishes inside the top-five, including runner-up finishes in the last two races at the venue.
But before they make it to the desert, the team will have to head to Homestead, yet another intermediate track. This will likely end up being the biggest roadblock in Blaney’s post-season journey, with the driver of the No. 12 having only recorded a single top-10 result in eight starts at the 1.5-mile facility.
Should Blaney be successful in limiting the damage through the first two races of the ‘Round of 8’, Martinsville Speedway could provide some much-needed relief, and potentially his first-ever berth into the ‘Championship 4’ at Phoenix. Since joining Team Penske in 2018, Blaney has finished inside the top-11 in 10 of his 11 starts.
If Blaney gets to Phoenix with a chance at the title, it becomes an entirely different ballgame, one where Team Penske may be able to put themselves in a position to win back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series championships.