Ryan Blaney Rides NASCAR Playoff Bubble as Cup Series Heads to Richmond

·5 min read
Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images
  • Ryan Blaney goes into Sunday afternoon’s race at Richmond (Va.) Raceway leading Martin Truex Jr. by 19 points for the final playoff spot with three regular-season races remaining.

  • Along with a half-dozen others, Blaney or Truex Jr. would almost guarantee a Playoff spot by winning the 400-lap, 250-miler at the ¾-mile, D-shaped track.

  • Seven drivers are locked in: Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Larson.

Ryan Blaney’s fifth-place finish last weekend at Michigan International Speedway strengthened his tenuous hold on the 16th and final spot in the upcoming NASCAR Playoff Series. He goes into Sunday afternoon’s race at Richmond (Va.) Raceway leading Martin Truex Jr. by 19 points with three regular-season races remaining.

Along with a half-dozen others, Blaney or Truex Jr. would almost guarantee a Playoff spot by winning the 400-lap, 250-miler at the ¾-mile, D-shaped track. And while a victory by another first-time winner—Bubba Wallace, for example, or Erik Jones or Aric Almirola—would hurt their chances, it wouldn’t necessarily eliminate them. They could make it in by winning at Watkins Glen or Daytona Beach.

Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sean Gardner - Getty Images

The formula to identify the 16 Playoff drivers is confusing almost beyond all reason. (And you thought going to the moon and back was complex). That said, NASCAR has assured us that even with 15 winners and three regular-season races remaining, seven drivers are locked in: Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Larson.

Nine others are close enough to be considered “virtually assured” of making it… but not quite officially. They include Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, and Kurt Busch. Winless Blaney is 19 points ahead of Truex Jr. for the final spot.

The 10-race Playoff Series opens Sept. 4 at Darlington, S.C. and goes on consecutive weekends to Kansas City, Bristol, Fort Worth, Talladega, the Charlotte roval, Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami, and Martinsville. The championship-deciding race is Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway.

Richmond hasn’t been good to Blaney. The Team Penske driver has one pole in 12 starts dating to 2016, but no victories or top 5s, and only two top 10s in 12 starts. The top 10s were his 10th-place last fall and his seventh this past April. He’s led only 128 of a possible 4,813 laps, all of them last spring.

Truex Jr., also winless this year, has been otherworldly at Richmond, especially recently. The 2017 Cup Series champion has made 32 starts there with Dale Earnhardt Inc., Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Barney Visser/Furniture Row, and his current gig with Joe Gibbs Racing. He had only three Richmond top-5s in 26 starts with his other teams, but has finished first, first, second, fifth, first, and fourth in his Richmond races with JGR.

Going into this weekend, 17th-ranked Truex Jr. is the only driver close enough to make the Playoffs on points. Jones is 18th-ranked, but trails Blaney by 190. He’s optimistic, even though he’s in the unenviable position of having to win one of the next three to have any hope at all.

Photo credit: Tim Nwachukwu - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Nwachukwu - Getty Images

Camping World Truck Series Playoff Update

The Camping World Truck Series continues its seven-race Playoff Series with a 250-lap, 187-mile race Saturday night at Richmond. The Worldwide Express 250 is the series’ second Playoff race, after Indianapolis Raceway Park on July 29 and before Kansas Speedway on Sept. 10.

The CWTS Playoff season includes just three rounds. Two of its 10 contenders are eliminated after IRP, Richmond, and Kansas City. Four more are eliminated after Bristol, Talladega, and Homestead. That leaves four drivers to settle the championship among themselves on Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

Grant Enfinger won last month’s Playoff-opener at IRP ahead of Ben Rhodes, Zane Smith, Stewart Friesen, and Corey Heim. The truck teams practice and qualify in the afternoon this weekend, then run 250 laps Saturday night.

Kurt Busch Still Out

Full-time Xfinity Series star Ty Gibbs once again will replace the injured Kurt Busch in this weekend’s Cup Series race. Busch, a 34-time winner and 2004 champion, is suffering concussion-like symptoms from a hard qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway last month. Gibbs, a five-time Xfinity winner this year, replaced Busch at Pocono, Indianapolis, and Michigan. The Xfinity Series has this weekend off before going to Watkins Glen next weekend.

Gragson Gets Cup Call

Petty GMS Racing has confirmed that Xfinity driver Noah Gragson will drive the team’s No. 42 Cup Series Chevrolet next season. He’ll replace Ty Dillon, who announced last month that he’ll be leaving Petty GMS after this year.

Gragson is fourth in Xfinity points, solidly in that series’ Playoff field while driving Chevrolets for JR Motorsports. He’s won three times this year – Phoenix, Talladega, and Pocono – with 11 top 5s and 15 top 10s in 21 starts. He’s made nine Cup Series starts in recent years with poor results with lower-level teams.

In an interesting aside, each of Gragson’s eight Xfinity victories in 123 starts has come at different venues: Daytona Beach, Bristol, Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville, Phoenix, Talladega, and Pocono.