Based on his initial results through eight of the 10 stops making up this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Ryan Blaney seems to have his work cut out for himself and the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford team.
His average finish at those tracks the first time around this season was an unappealing 22.25.
Chicagoland Speedway, which hosts the playoff opener Sunday, Sept. 17, and Homestead Miami Speedway, site of the Nov. 19 season finale, are the only tracks in the playoffs where the series has yet to visit this season. The others, New Hampshire and Dover and Charlotte and Talladega and so forth, will be return visits. But with much more at stake.
Crew chief Jeremy Bullins says he’s not concerned with past results, and adds that in most cases those numbers from this year’s first visits don’t tell the entire story.
“You look at Dover for example, I think we were running in the top 10 and broke an axle,” Bullins said Monday during a teleconference featuring himself and WBR co-owners Eddie and Len Wood.
“The same thing at Charlotte, we were running in the top five and had an axle failure there.”
The incidents occurred after Blaney had finished in the top 10 in the opening stages of both races. He went on to finish 32nd at Dover and 24th at Charlotte.
Talladega, where restrictor plates limit speeds but also create pack racing, “is hit or miss,” Bullins said. “You’re either going to run well or get caught up in a wreck.”
It was the latter this past spring, and Blaney wound up 39th in the 40-car field — after finishing in the top 10 in the first two stages.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Bullins added. “I feel like it’s just a matter of putting races together and not having some of the things go wrong that have gone wrong in the past and if we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
This year’s Playoffs will be the first for Blaney and the Wood Brothers, a legendary team that’s been around nearly as long as NASCAR itself. Blaney gave the group career win No. 99 earlier this year at Pocono, a victory that was his first in the series.
He’ll be joined by other first-time winners Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing) and Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing) and the three will be among those considered underdogs when it comes to advancing through the various stages en route to Homestead and the championship race.
Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) are the favorites, having won often, run consistently and piled up more bonus points through victories and stage wins than anyone else. The gap between Truex and 16th-place Jamie McMurray is 50 points.
But strange things can happen when the playoffs get underway and the pressure begins to mount.
“Those guys could have some problems early and all of a sudden those extra points they’ve got could disappear pretty quick if the right guy doesn’t have a good day,” Eddie Wood said.
“This is very special to us because this is the first time we’ve actually been involved in the new format. It’s kind of a do-or-die format. You’ve got three races to do well in to advance to the next round and that puts a lot of pressure on everyone, but I think we’re ready for it.”