Ryan Blaney finds positives in Talladega turn of events, but ‘just stinks to be that close’

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Ryan Blaney punctuated the lap after the last lap Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway by keying up the No. 12 Team Penske Ford’s radio: “Damn it!” His blast of frustration over his current dry spell, however, was admittedly offset by the positives of a productive day in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

The agonizing season-long O-fer continued for Blaney in Sunday’s YellaWood 500 after Chase Elliott deftly slipped by with a final-lap pass for a narrow victory at the Alabama speed palace. Blaney was just .046 seconds short of snapping a winless skid that now stretches to 41 races, but the consolation was a favorable outcome in the standings – a 45-point harvest that was second only to Elliott’s 58 including a playoff point for a Stage 1 win.

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The long-term goals loomed large, but Blaney was still sorting out how the final two-lap dash to the finish unfolded in the short term.

“I’ll look at it, probably pick out a few things I probably should have done different, wish I would have done different, but it’s easy to say that now,” Blaney said. “Just overall a decent day. Just stinks to be that close to our damn first win of the season and go home.”

Blaney had lined up second for the final restart alongside leader Erik Jones. Elliott was slotted fifth – third in the low line — but the strength of Blaney’s start allowed him to shift up to the top lane in front of Jones to mount a better challenge with a lap and a half to go.

From there, Blaney relied on a steady push from fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell, a superspeedway stalwart. Jones offered his pushing support to Elliott in a tandem of Chevrolets. Blaney led at the white flag as each lane vied for supremacy, but when he became slightly separated from McDowell through Turns 3 and 4, the stronger Elliott-Jones connection prevailed, and Blaney was powerless to block it.

Ryan Blaney smiles post-race on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Studios

“I had a couple chances to move up to the top and cover it,” Blaney said, “and I was just nervous about getting hung in the middle, you know, with the 9 (Elliott), the 43 (Jones) and the 1 (Ross Chastain) lined up. I just didn’t feel comfortable going up there and trusting. … I trust Chase, but not that much to where he wouldn’t hang me out for the greater good of his group.”

“So just chose to stay on the bottom with Michael, and I mean, we had a great chance of winning the thing. Just, we got disconnected in the middle of (turns) three and four. I don’t know if the 11 (Denny Hamlin) laid off of him. We kind of disconnected and let the 9 and 43 get a big run, and I was just kind of a little bit too late.”

The solace came from Blaney’s playoff positioning after a roundabout day. He edged Hamlin by .009 seconds for the Stage 1 win, benefitting from a push from Penske teammate Austin Cindric that helped him settle that scramble. When the pay window opened for Stage 2 points, Blaney sensed the tension and rising crash likelihood near the front of the pack and bailed out of that fray.

Still, Blaney emerged as the top-ranked driver not already locked into the next round of the Cup Series Playoffs. He carries a 32-point cushion into Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM) at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL.

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“Your immediate reaction finishing second is always disappointment, right? I mean, it’s the worst place to finish, you feel like, but really did accomplish a lot today,” said interim crew chief Miles Stanley, who was one of three stand-in crew members Sunday for the No. 12 team after a lost-wheel penalty at Bristol. “We got a stage win, so that bonus point really helps in the playoffs. Really accumulated a lot of points, and I think we put ourselves in a really good position in the playoff picture points-wise going into the ROVAL, which is a bit of an unknown, obviously. So yeah, honestly, a really good day, a solid effort by the whole team.

“Everyone executed. Obviously, we got — myself included — a few fill-in guys for this team, and everyone did a great job. I think all our guys overall did excellent, did everything we asked them to do, and it worked out well.”

Blaney said the potential for a more cautious approach to bank a lucrative points day had entered his mind as the laps ticked away. But playing it safe, with a Talladega win and an automatic berth in the postseason’s next round in the balance, was promptly abandoned.

“You know I had that thought, like before the restart. And then we got going green, and I’m like, you want to turn into race-win mode,” Blaney said. “So for a moment I was like, you know it’d be good to line up on the front row, see what we can get. I just don’t want to get wrecked, you know, I just don’t want to get turned. But I forgot all about that, and I just wanted to win the race.”