Blaney, Truex, other contenders facing one last shot at Daytona

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — With a 25-point lead on Martin Truex Jr. for the final playoff spot, Ryan Blaney wishes he could feel comfortable about his playoff prospects.

And he might feel somewhat comfortable, if not for the site of the regular-season finale 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 the number of victories, 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 one 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 odds

Ryan Blaney on his current playoff odds

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

Blaney (third overall in the regular-season point standings) and Truex (sixth) are the only drivers with a shot to get in on points. Both seemed relaxed at Watkins Glen, even knowing what they faced.

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

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

Truex, the 2017 Cup champion, has made the championship round of the playoffs in five of the past six years, recording three second-place finishes. To stress over making the playoffs is pretty 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 with a 33-race winless streak. “This is kind of ‘child’s play.’ … We’ll do the best we can. There’s no magic bullet.

“We’ll just go race hard.”

Martin Truex Jr. on pressure to make playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. on pressure to make playoffs

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

Truex has never won a race at the drafting superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. 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 has now gone 35 races without a victory — and nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, but his teammate Austin Cindric threw a rough block on him to snatch the trophy. Others among the win-and-in hopefuls who have a Cup win at Daytona on their résumés are Jones, Almirola, Austin Dillon, Haley, McDowell, Stenhouse and Keselowski.

“Knowing that if you win, you’re in, that’s added that same level of [Daytona 500] excitement for the fans and angst for the drivers,” Almirola said.

“At least for the drivers that have to make it in. You go there with a lot of pressure and feeling there is a lot of weight on you to get it done.”

Many drivers entered Watkins Glen last weekend knowing that road-course racing wasn’t their strength and setting their sights on Daytona as their likely path to the playoffs.

They also know just how difficult it is to win a race. The current winless streaks for the drivers trying to get in: 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 to Daytona with a certain level of pressure that’s really high, feeling like it’s your last shot,” Almirola said. “Every single year when we start the season, our goal is to win races, make the playoffs, go run for a championship.”

Aric Almirola on the pressure going into Daytona

Aric Almirola on the pressure going into Daytona

Aric Almirola describes the pressure drivers feel, knowing that Daytona is their last shot to make the NASCAR postseason.

Drivers need help in the draft at Daytona, and it is expected by their manufacturers that they’ll help those within their brand. 

But the cutoff race at Daytona could present a driver with an interesting choice: Help a teammate or a friend win, or help a driver who isn’t considered a championship contender to make sure neither Blaney nor Truex — championship contenders if they make the playoffs — gets in the postseason.

Jones, who is 17th in the Cup standings, wouldn’t mind if someone feels that way and pushes him to the win.

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

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

Erik Jones on his mindset going into Daytona

Erik Jones on his mindset going into Daytona

Erik Jones will have to win at Daytona to make the playoffs. Will someone push him to the win? Does the fact that he isn’t viewed as championship threat potentially help?

The drivers who need to win might plan to race near the rear of the field in hopes of avoiding any big wrecks. Others won’t want to race their way through the field at what could be a frenetic finish because that might require even more dicey moves and could trigger an accident.

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

“And you have a couple of guys that probably think they will keep track position all day, and that is how we’re going to win.”

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

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

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Fast Thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson’s move on Elliott over the line?

Fast Thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Was Larson's move on Elliott over the line?

Bob Pockrass breaks down 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 frustrating to 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 Circuit of the Americas, it was the right decision.

Drivers said they were concerned about visibility during the pace laps. About half said the track was not in condition to race. Were some motivated by not wanting to race in the rain? Maybe. But in this instance, NASCAR needs to err on the side of caution.

The wrecks last year at COTA, when drivers couldn’t see amid the rain and spray off their tires, are not something that can be repeated. NASCAR made sure of that. Even though the race perhaps started 30 minutes later than wished, it was the right call to make sure the track was safe to race.

Social spotlight

Stat 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 got in there hot. I did what I had to do to win. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of it, especially with a teammate, but I feel like I had to execute that way to get the win.” — Kyle Larson after muscling his way past Chase Elliott with five laps remaining Sunday

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following 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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