For Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
WATKINS GLEN, NY — With a 25-point lead Martin Truex Jr. for the final playoff spot, Ryan Blaney would like to feel comfortable with their playoff prospects.
And he might feel a little comfortable, if it weren’t for the site of the regular season finale on 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 number of wins, 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 a spot open for either the winless driver with the most points or the driver who scores 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 looks at his chances to win the final two Cup races of the 2022 regular season and why he’s not losing sleep over his playoff prospects.
Blaney (third overall in the regular season points standings) and Truex (sixth) are the only drivers with a chance to enter the points. Both looked relaxed at Watkins Glen, even knowing what they were up against.
“I slept really well this week,” Blaney said. “It’s no different than any other time. You can’t stress about it. It’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen, whether you make the playoffs or not.
“There are only two options, two options. You can’t stress about the negatives if you don’t get it. If you stress about it, then your mind is set on it, [and] you won’t make it.”
Truex, the 2017 Cup champion, has made the championship round of the playoffs in five of the last six years, posting three runner-up finishes. Stress to reach the playoffs is quite strange to him.
“I think nothing compares to the pressure you feel when you’re in a championship race,” said Truex, who enters Daytona on a 33-race winless streak. “This is kind of ‘child’s play.’ … We’re going to do the best we can, there’s no magic bullet.
“We’re just going to run hard.”
Martin Truex Jr. about pressure to reach the playoffs
Martin Truex Jr. he 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 Daytona and Talladega Superspeedways. But he won the first two legs of the Daytona 500 this year and has come close several times.
Blaney won the cutoff race at Daytona last year (he’s now 35 races without a win) and nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, but teammate Austin Cindric threw a hard lock on him to take the trophy Others among the contenders to win and enter who have 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 there, it adds the same level [Daytona 500] excitement for the fans and anguish for the drivers,” Almirola said.
“At least for the drivers who have to come. You go there with a lot of pressure and feeling that there is a lot of weight to do it.”
Many drivers entered Watkins Glen last weekend knowing that road racing was not their forte and looking at Daytona as their likely path to the playoffs.
They also know how hard it is to win a race. Current winless streak of drivers trying to enter: 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 into Daytona with a certain level of pressure that’s very high, feeling 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 a championship.”
Drivers need help in the draft at Daytona, and their manufacturers are expected to help their brand.
But the cutoff race at Daytona could present a driver with an interesting choice: Help a teammate or 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. – enters the postseason.
Jones, who is 17th in the Cup standings, wouldn’t mind someone feeling that way and pushing him to win.
“I like that mentality,” he said with a laugh. “If they want to help me, I’m more than willing [to take it].
“I think we’re going to have a fast car, for sure, so I think people are going to want to work with us just for that.”
Drivers who need to win might plan to run near the back of the field in hopes of avoiding major wrecks. Others won’t want to run across the field in what could be a frantic finish because that could require even more complicated moves and could lead to an accident.
“It could be a deal where you have a lot of guys that all they care about is winning, so they might not be up there competing as hard,” Austin Dillon said.
“And you’ve got a couple of guys who probably think they’re going to hold the 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, they can only do so much.
“Hopefully we can win Daytona and run well enough to get it,” Blaney said. “That’s all we can do.”
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Quick thoughts with Bob Pockrass: Did Larson’s play on Elliott cross the line?
Bob Pockrass breaks down if 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 for the 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 the Circuit of the Americas, be the right decision.
Drivers said they were concerned about visibility during pace laps. About half said the track was not in a condition to compete. Were some motivated by not wanting to run in the rain? May be. But in this case, NASCAR needs to err on the side of caution.
Last year’s accidents at COTA, when drivers couldn’t see in the rain and sprayed their tires, are not something that can be repeated. NASCAR made sure of that. Even though the race maybe started 30 minutes later than I wanted, it was the right call to make sure the track was safe for the race.
Statistics 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 went into it 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 like that to get the win.” . – Kyle Larson after passing Chase Elliott with five laps to go Sunday
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after 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? Subscribe to the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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