Ryan Blaney on flying under the radar in NASCAR Playoffs ahead of 300th Cup start

Ryan Blaney managed to fly under the radar and into the Round of 12 after a quiet-but-steady opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

The veteran driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has become a staple of the postseason: Blaney has qualified for the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons and his advancement marks the fifth time in six years he’s competed in the Round of 12.

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Finishes of ninth, 12th and 22nd at Darlington, Kansas and Bristol, respectively, allowed the eighth-year full-timer to remain in title contention as Blaney seeks his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. Those results don’t necessarily jump off the page — but they did the job.

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Blaney entered the playoffs just one point above the provisional elimination line. But that cushion was padded to a 26-point margin by the checkered flag at Kansas Speedway, thanks in large part to the 20 stage points he garnered there and at Darlington, 10 stage points at each track.

“We did a good job of netting positive points each race,” Blaney told NASCAR.com Wednesday via teleconference. “Only being plus-one, right, as the playoffs started, and then I think after Darlington, we were plus-15. After Kansas, we were plus-26, which let us go into Bristol — and you’re never really safe, unless you have a win, right, or you’re 50 points to the good — but it lets you go and be able to have not a great race like we had at Bristol, but was still able to do what we need to do to get in. So we just did a good job of managing the race. …

“We just did a really solid job of (executing). I wish our speed was a little bit better but we did a great job and we made up for it in executing a good three races. And that’s what let us get into this round.”

Blaney said his top priority through the first round of the playoffs has always been simple: Don’t take yourself out of it. That mission was accomplished without issue. But the focus shifts as the No. 12 team enters the Round of 12 beneath the elimination line, trailing provisional last-one-in Tyler Reddick by six points.

The second stanza kicks off at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) before shifting to Talladega Superspeedway and concluding at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

“Obviously, the rounds get tougher each time, right?” Blaney said. “I mean, as you cut teams, as the field gets smaller, it’s harder to make it to each round, especially because we don’t really have the bonus points that some guys have. So you know, I feel like this round is tricky.”

To advance is made more challenging by the potential chaos that looms at Talladega — a track at which Blaney has won twice but also often produces multicar collisions. There is an emphasis on starting the round well at the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth, Texas, to avoid any must-win scenarios in the subsequent two weeks, but Talladega isn’t exactly haunting Blaney.

“No matter how Texas goes, I don’t really think that changes our mindset for Talladega anyway,” he said. “You know, I feel like going into speedways, we’ve always had the mindset in our building we’re gonna go try to control the race; we’re going to try to run up front, lead laps, get stage points and contend for the win. You know, I’ve never been a fan of riding around, see how the race plays out. I’ve just never really been that way. You gotta go try to control the race and control the event.

“So no matter what happens, good (or) bad at Texas, Talladega, we have kind of our game plan. And it’s what’s helped us have positive results in the past and that’s, I think, a formula to stick to.”

Ryan Blaney makes a pit stop at Darlington as his crew darts around the neon-yellow and black No. 12 Ford
James Gilbert | Getty Images

Indeed, if it works, it works — much like how Blaney quietly worked through the Round of 16. No noise was plenty fine by his standards.

“Flying under the radar is good for me personally,” Blaney said. “I mean, you want to not have any drama, especially in the first couple rounds. And if you fly under the radar and you’re making it — big deal. That doesn’t matter, right? I mean, you’re doing your job. You’re doing what you need to do to get there. But I think if you get to the Round of 8, you definitely need to perform.

“Those three tracks — Vegas, Homestead, Martinsville — you have to run very well. You’re not going to be able to fly under the radar when you get to eight guys, unless you’re the (Nos.) 24 or the 19 group, who have tons of bonus points. You can kind of fly under the radar and have enough points to back it up. If we get to Round of 8, we need to perform.”

That journey starts Sunday at Texas, where Blaney has been incredibly strong throughout his career. While he’s still seeking his first points-paying Cup Series win in Fort Worth, he owns a 2022 All-Star Race victory there in addition to a series-best eight top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts there (including a series-high five consecutive), most points earned in the last 10 Texas races (384 to Kevin Harvick’s second-most 377) and the third-most laps led at Texas without scoring a win (432, behind only Martin Truex Jr.’s 689 laps led and Brad Keselowski’s 685).

“I loved the old track and then when they redid it (in 2017), it still just kind of suited what we do and suited my driving style well,” said Blaney, whose lone 2023 victory came on the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval in the spring. “It suited what we do at Team Penske pretty decent to where we’ve led tons of laps there. Winning the All-Star Race was great and having good runs in the points races is really good. We just haven’t really been able to close it out. But you never know; you just hope you do your homework.

“I’m not a huge believer in, ‘Oh, we’ve run good at this place for years. We’re gonna run good again.’ Right? Things are always changing. Teams are getting better week in and week out. You have to keep up with the curve. It gives you confidence going into these places that you’ve run well at, but you never know. You can’t just expect to run good there. So you just try to do all the work you can and understand. You feel like you have a decent idea of, hey, I think I know what it takes to go fast here and what we need in our car to run well, but I don’t think you can ever really get comfortable.”

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Ryan Blaney, left, and father Dave Blaney talk in the garage ahead of Ryan's first NASCAR Cup Series start at Kansas in 2014
Todd Warshaw | NASCAR via Getty Images

Sunday will mark Blaney’s 300th NASCAR Cup Series start — a stat that signifies both how long he’s been here and how rapidly the sport moves.

“I remember the first one and it’s crazy,” he said. “Time flies really quickly. And it seems like just yesterday, I was running at Kansas in my first Cup race, but really amazing. Been fortunate to be with such a great group from the Wood Brothers to Penske, who’s given me opportunities to make it this far.

“It goes by really quickly, especially when you’re surrounded by really great people. And I’ve been having fun and I’ve had some decent success. So it is wild that we’re already here. But it is really cool to be at this spot and hopefully we can make it a special 300th start.”

The arrival of start No. 300 sparked the curiosity about how many his father, Dave Blaney, made. The elder Blaney competed in 473 Cup races, a mark the younger Blaney would tie during the 2028 season if he continues at his current pace without stopping.

“That’s gonna be a big one when I surpass 473,” Ryan Blaney said. “That’s going to be a big one of putting it in perspective of having more starts than my dad. That’s really gonna make me feel like a veteran of the sport. I mean, that’s gonna be (five) years away, right, so yeah, that’ll be here before you know it.”