Blaney, Truex, other contenders face one final shot at Daytona

from Bob Pokras
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

WATKINS GLEN, NY – With a 25-point lead Martin Truex Jr. for the last place in the playoffs, Ryan Blaney wants him to feel comfortable about his playoff prospects.

And he can feel somewhat comfortable, if not for the spot in the regular season finale on Saturday.

Does Blaney believe he controls his own destiny?

“Not at Daytona,” he said, “no.”

The 16-driver playoff field consists of the regular-season champion and 15 other drivers based on number of wins, with ties broken by points.

Chase Elliott, who has four wins, has already won the regular season title. There are 14 other drivers with wins: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Kurt Busch.

That leaves a spot open for either the winless driver with the most points or the driver who records his first win of the year Saturday at Daytona International Speedway — a track known for unpredictability and upsets.

These drivers would clinch a playoff spot with a win at Daytona: Blaney, Truex, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski , Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon and Todd Gilliland.

Ryan Blaney on his current playoff chances

Ryan Blaney on his current playoff chances

Ryan Blaney analyzes his chances to win the final two races of the 2022 Cup regular season and explains why he’s not losing sleep over his playoff prospects.

Blaney (third overall in the regular-season points standings) and Truex (sixth) are the only drivers with a shot at scoring points. Both seemed at ease at Watkins Glen, even knowing what they were up against.

“I slept well this week,” Blaney said. “It’s no different than any other time. You can’t stress yourself out about it. It’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen, whether you make the playoffs or not.

“There are only two choices, two options. You can’t stress about the negatives if you don’t succeed. If you stress yourself out about it, then your mind is set on that. [and] you won’t make it.”

Truex, the 2017 Cup champion, has made the championship round of the playoffs in five of the last six years, recording three runner-up finishes. Highlighting to reach the playoffs is very foreign to him.

“I don’t think anything compares to the pressure you feel when you’re in a championship race,” said Truex, who enters Daytona on a 33-race winless streak. “This is kind of ‘child’s play.’ … We’re going to do the best we can. There’s no magic bullet.

“We’re just going to race hard.”

Martin Truex Jr. under pressure to make the playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. under pressure to make the playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. says the pressure to make the playoffs is “child’s play” compared to the pressure a driver feels when competing for the championship.

Truex has never won a race at the Daytona and Talladega draft supertracks. But he won the opening two stages of the Daytona 500 this year and has come close several times.

Blaney won the cutoff race at Daytona last year — he’s now gone 35 races without a win — and nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, but his teammate Austin Cindric threw a rough block on him to grab the trophy. Others among the contenders who have a Daytona Cup win on their resumes are Jones, Almirola, Austin Dillon, Haley, McDowell, Stenhouse and Keselowski.

“Knowing that if you win, you’re in, it adds that same level [Daytona 500] excitement for the fans and anxiety for the drivers”, said Almirola.

“At least for the drivers who have to go in. You go in there with a lot of pressure and you feel like you have a lot of weight to do it.”

Many drivers entered Watkins Glen last weekend knowing that road racing was not their forte and setting their sights on Daytona as their potential path to the playoffs.

They also know how hard it is to win a race. Current winless streaks for drivers trying to enter: Buescher (219), Stenhouse (188), Jones (108), Custer (80), Austin Dillon (78), McDowell (60), Haley (58), Keselowski ( 51 ), Almirola (39), Blaney (35), Truex (33) and Wallace (29).

Ty Dillon (191 career starts), Burton (26) and Gilliland (25) have never won a Cup race.

“You go into Daytona with a certain level of pressure that’s really high, feeling like it’s your last shot,” Almirola said. “Every year when we start the season, our goal is to win races, make the playoffs, make a run for a championship.”

Aric Almirola on the pressure heading into Daytona

Aric Almirola on the pressure heading into Daytona

Aric Almirola describes the pressure drivers feel, knowing Daytona is their last shot at making the NASCAR postseason.

Drivers need help in the draft at Daytona and are expected by their manufacturers to help them within their brand.

But the stoppage race at Daytona can present a driver with an interesting choice: help a teammate or friend win, or help a driver not considered a championship contender to make sure neither Blaney nor Truex – championship contenders if they will go to the play-offs. – enters the postseason.

Jones, who is 17th in the Cup standings, wouldn’t mind someone feeling that way and pushing him to victory.

“I like that mentality,” he said with a laugh. “If they want to help me, I’m more than willing [to take it].

“I think we’re going to have a fast car, for sure, so I think people are going to want to work with us just because of that.”

Erik Jones on his mindset heading into Daytona

Erik Jones on his mindset heading into Daytona

Erik Jones will need to win at Daytona to make the playoffs. Will someone push him to victory? Does the fact that he’s not seen as a championship threat potentially help?

Drivers who need to win may plan to race near the back of the field in hopes of avoiding any major crashes. Others won’t want to run across the field in what could be a frantic finish because that could require even more zero moves and could cause an accident.

“It might be a deal where you have a lot of guys that the only thing that matters to them is winning, so they might not be up there racing as hard,” Austin Dillon said.

“And you’ve got some guys that maybe think they’re going to hold the right position all day, and that’s how we’re going to win.”

While everyone will have the pressure to win, they know, as Blaney said, they can only do so much.

“Hopefully we can win Daytona and run enough to make it,” Blaney said. “That’s all we can do.”

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Quick thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson’s move on Elliott out of line?

Quick thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson's move on Elliott out of line?

Bob Pockrass shares whether he thinks Kyle Larson’s move on Chase Elliott to win at Watkins Glen crossed the line.

Thinking out loud

It was probably a little disappointing for fans that NASCAR delayed the start of the Watkins Glen race to take care of some puddles on the track, but after what NASCAR experienced last year at the Circuit of the Americas, it was the right decision.

Pilots said they were concerned about visibility during high-speed laps. About half said the track was not fit for racing. Were some motivated by not wanting to race in the rain? Maybe. But in this case, NASCAR should err on the side of caution.

Last year’s wrecks at COTA, when drivers couldn’t see through the rain and sprayed their tires, are not something that can be repeated. NASCAR made sure of that. Although the race probably started 30 minutes later than desired, it was the right call to make sure the track was safe to race on.

In the center of social attention

Statistics of the day

Kyle Larson became the second driver to sweep the Xfinity and Cup races at Watkins Glen. The other? Joey Logano in 2015.

They said it

“I went in there hot. I did what I had to do to win. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of that, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I had to execute that way to get the win.” – Kyle Larson after the muscleman passed Chase Elliott with five laps to go on Sunday

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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