Blaney, Truex, other contenders face final shot at Daytona

by Bob Pocross
Fox Sports NASCAR writer

WATKINS GLEN, NY – With a 25-point lead Martin Truex Jr. For the final playoff spot, Ryan Blaney He wants to feel comfortable about his playoff chances.

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 in Daytona,” he said, “no.”

The 16-driver playoff field consists of the regular-season champion and 15 other drivers based on number of victories, broken down by points.

Chase Elliott, with four wins, already has the regular season title. There are 14 other drivers with victories: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Tyler Reddick, Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindyric, Chase Briscoe and Kurt Busch.

That leaves a spot open for either the winningest 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, Eric Jones, Eric 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 the final two regular-season Cup races of 2022 and explains why he’s not losing sleep over his playoff chances.

Blaney (third overall in the regular-season point standings) and Truex (sixth) are the only drivers with a shot at scoring points. Both Watkins looked relaxed at Glenn, despite knowing what they faced.

“I’ve been sleeping better this week,” Blaney said. “No different than any other time. You can’t stress yourself out about it. It’s either going to happen, or it’s not going to happen, whether you’re in the playoffs or not.

“There are only two options, two options. You can’t stress about the negative if you don’t make it. If you stress yourself about it, your mind is set on it, [and] You’re 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. The pressure to make the playoffs is 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. “It’s ‘child’s play.’ … We’ll do our best. There’s no magic bullet.

“We’re going to run hard.”

Martin Truex Jr. is under pressure to make the playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. is under pressure to make the playoffs

Martin Truex Jr. says the pressure to make the playoffs is “child’s play” that drivers feel when racing for a championship.

Truex has never won a race at the drafting superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. But he has won the opening two rounds of the Daytona 500 this year and has come close several times.

Blaney won the cutoff race at Daytona last year — he’s now gone 35 races without a win — and nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, but his teammate Austin Cinderic threw a rough block on him to take away the trophy. Among the other hopefuls with a Cup win at Daytona on their resume are Jones, Almirola, Austin Dillon, Haley, McDowell, Stenhouse and Keselowski.

“Knowing that if you win, you’re in, that added level [Daytona 500] Excitement for the fans and exasperation for the drivers,” Almirola said.

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

Many drivers entered Watkins Glen last weekend knowing that road-course racing is not their forte and setting their sights on Daytona as their potential path to the playoffs.

They also know how hard it is to win a race. Current winless streaks for drivers looking 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, it feels like it’s your last shot,” Almirola said. “Every year when we start the season, our goal is to win races, make the playoffs, make a run for the championship.”

Eric Almirola under pressure heading into Daytona

Eric Almirola under pressure heading into Daytona

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

Drivers need help drafting at Daytona, and their manufacturers are expected to help those within their brands.

But the cutoff race at Daytona can present a driver with an interesting choice: Help a teammate or friend win, or help a driver not considered a championship contender—either Blaney or Truex—if championship contenders make the playoffs. – Acquired in the postseason.

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

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

“I think we will definitely have a faster car, so I think people will want to work with us.

Eric Jones on his mindset heading into Daytona

Eric Jones on his mindset heading into Daytona

Eric Jones needs to win at Daytona to make the playoffs. Will someone push him to win? Does the fact that he is viewed as a championship threat potentially help?

Drivers who need to win can plan to race to the back of the field, hoping to avoid any major crashes. Others don’t want to race their way through the field to a frenetic finish because that might require more daring moves and trigger an accident.

“It might be a deal where you have a lot of guys that the only thing that matters to them is winning, so they might not come out there running as hard,” Austin Dillon said.

“And you have some guys that probably think they’re going to hold track position all day, and that’s how we’re going to win.”

While they will all be under pressure to win, they know, as Blaney said, there is only so much they can do.

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

Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

Quick thoughts with Bob Pokras: Was Larson’s move on Elliott over the line?

Quick thoughts with Bob Pokras: Was Larson's move on Elliott over the line?

Bob Pokras breaks down whether he thinks Kyle Larson’s move on Chase Elliott crossed the line to win Watkins Glen.

thinking out loud

It was probably a little disappointing for 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 at Circuit of the Americas last year, it was the right decision.

Drivers said they were concerned about visibility during speed laps. About half said the track was not in race condition. Was anyone motivated by not wanting to run in the rain? maybe But in this case, NASCAR needs to err on the side of caution.

Last year’s wrecks at COTA, when drivers couldn’t see through the water and sprayed their tires, aren’t repeatable. NASCAR made sure of it. Although the race started 30 minutes later than desired, it was the right call to ensure the track was safe to race on.

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position of the day

Kyle Larson became the second driver to sweep the Xfinity and Cup races at Watkins Glen. Other? Joey Logano in 2015.

They said

“I got hot out there. I did what I had to do to win. Again, I’m not necessarily proud of that, especially with a team, but I think I had to execute that way to get the win.” – Kyle Larson leads Chase Elliott with five laps remaining on Sunday

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints at ESPN, Sports News, NASCAR View magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpocrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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