Ryan Blaney climbed out of his No. 12 Team Penske Ford Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway looking simultaneously relieved and genuinely worn-out.
He claimed the final 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff position after a 15th-place finish – six laps down – in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 regular season finale; he and his team turning in a tenacious performance in a race delayed a full day and then extended by a three-hour plus red flag break because of rain showers.
Four multi-car accidents eliminated many other pre-race favorites. And in the end, Blaney eked out a three-point advantage in the standings over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. to claim the final 2022 Playoff position. Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was eighth in the race. But the season-long math gave Blaney the Playoff opportunity, with first-time winner Austin Dillon nabbing the other Playoff position on the line.
Blaney, who took a 25-point advantage into the race, was in an early accident that badly hobbled his car and ultimately prevented him from mounting any serious threat to win the race. And the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion Truex actually took the Playoff lead for much of the day following Blaney’s early race incident.
The race was paused with 21 laps remaining for bad weather and had it not resumed, Truex was in position to transfer into the Playoff field.
But the race resumed and ultimately Blaney persevered – damaged car, laps-down and all – to earn his sixth consecutive Playoff bid.
It was day of high competition and high emotion with the Playoff lineup shifting often. And Blaney, 28, contends it was actually his ability to temper his emotions – having dinner, watching golf on television and truly chilling out during that long red flag delay – that may have been the difference on Sunday.
“It’s easy to kind of freak out and things like that, but you just have to reel yourself in," Blaney said of not giving up despite the early race misfortune “It’s out of your hands at that point, there wasn’t really anything we could do. You hope another winner wins the race or that we could still beat Martin on points.
“You just try to stay calm and accept the fact, it might not happen. And it was nothing we did wrong, just got caught up in someone else’s mess. I’ve been saying that all week. You can get caught up in someone else’s mess and that’s what happened to us. I try to stay optimistic you make a run at the end.
“But you try to stay positive about those things," Blaney continued. “You never know what could happen. Our day was not well from the start, but you just try to keep your head up and stay in the game and that’s what we did. They did a good job of trying to fix it best they could even though we weren’t fast, we stayed running and that’s really what made the difference for us.”
Truex, meanwhile, climbed out of his Toyota understandably mired in the other end of emotion. He led Blaney by 12-points for the transfer position when the race was red-flagged. Had NASCAR not re-started the race, Truex would be racing for a title.
The two were tied, then exchanged the lead by a point, then ultimately Blaney took it for good with that so-slim three-point difference in the thrilling, closing handful of laps.
Truex said the damage his car suffered earlier in another of the mid-race multi-car accidents, really left him unable to race for the victory in the closing laps without any drafting partners.
“Just had too much damage at the end, just couldn’t keep up," Truex said. “The only chance I had was when they got side-by-side and started checking up the line then I could get back up to them. But just too much damage to have the speed to do anything at all.
“We really did a good job to make up 22 points in one race," he said. “It’s a big gain. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough today.
“The Bass Pro Shops Toyota was really fast, and we ran, what I thought was a smart race, just wrong place at wrong time and you know 30 cars out here today could say that. Just frustrating. We run well and then get wrecked and at the end of the day, still have a somewhat decent finish, but it really doesn’t matter.”
And so Blaney, who was ranked third in the championship standings before the Playoff re-set, will race for his first title. He has eight top-five, and 12 top-10 finishes in the opening 26 races. Truex was sixth in points before the Daytona race. Both drivers are still competing for their first wins of the season.
The 10-race elimination-style NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin next week with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway next Sunday (6 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“We’ve still got a lot to race for and to go win a couple races would be awesome," Truex said.