Breakthrough at Bristol? Ryan Blaney looking for first 2019 Cup win

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Ryan Blaney’s recent marks at Bristol Motor Speedway are pretty impressive.

The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has led at least 100 laps in the last three races at the .533-mile oval. Two of those instances were race-high marks.

A descriptor such as pretty, though, is needed. None of those runs converted into wins. Blaney’s best Bristol finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is fourth – earlier this season after spending 158 of the 500 laps out front.

“It can get frustrating at times,” Blaney told Friday. “But it’s all a learning experience, just trying to remember things very well, save information and apply it to the next time.”

That time is now.

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The annual Bristol Night Race is Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Blaney will start 12th after circling the track at 128.082 mph during qualifying. His final practice speed was good for second fastest (128.245 mph) and better than his opening sixth-place go-around (127.368 mph).

“We’ve been really good here early,” Blaney said. “We just need to kind of be able to carry that toward the end.”

Then, maybe then he’ll get his first Cup Series victory at Bristol and first overall in 2019.

With just three races remaining in the regular season, Blaney sits ninth in the championship standings with 654 points. He’s the highest-ranked driver out of those who have not won this season and even a spot ahead of one who has won (Alex Bowman, 10th with 653 points). He’s currently safe since the playoff field is cut at 16 – for now.

“I don’t really think about the points,” Blaney said. “Really, the only time I think about the points is in the playoffs. You know, I just want to win races. That’s something that’s kind of eluded us during the regular season this year, which has kind of stunk. I thought we could have won two to three already this year, but it hasn’t worked out for us.”

The moments that stick out most to Blaney are Atlanta Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Michigan International Speedway. He finished 22nd, sixth and 24th in those races, respectively. He thought those got away from him despite having what he considered a competitive car.

Blaney’s best finish so far is third. It happened twice: ISM Raceway and Sonoma Raceway. He has seven top-five performances and 10 top 10s. He has also led 365 laps, which once again leads drivers without wins.

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To get really deep into the weeds of possibilities, Blaney can clinch a playoff spot this weekend on points alone if a winner repeats or if Aric Almirola, William Byron, Kyle Larson or Erik Jones wins and Blaney gets help. A victory, of course, would also guarantee him a berth.

“You can talk about playoffs and talk about the regular season, but at the end of the day, it’s the same goal: try to win the race and do the best you can,” Blaney said. “The pressure side of it, that’s all year. You’re under pressure to try to win races, to try to keep your job. That’s pressure in itself. But playoffs, you’re just fortunate to be a part of them. … If you’re worried about pressure, your mind is not focused on how to perform at the highest of your abilities.”

And that’s all Blaney needs to do this weekend. He has proved he can run well at Bristol. Now he just needs to seal the deal.

Saturday is another opportunity for the 25-year-old to yet again impress at Bristol — really, this time.

“You always got to be confident,” Blaney said. “I think there’s a fine line between confident and arrogant, so you try to be as confident as you can in your team and yourself. Believe in yourself, that you’ve been good at this track before.”