With a bit of disbelief over his fast fall in the NASCAR standings, Ryan Blaney is determined to avoid elimination from the playoffs.
It's a daunting task and just might require an outright win Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where four drivers will be knocked from title contention. Blaney, who was solidly inside the top 10 of the Cup Series standings all year, has plummeted to last in the 16-driver field.
William Byron, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Blaney are the four drivers below the cutline headed into the knockout race. It marks a bizarre collapse for Blaney, who spent 13 weeks ranked fourth or higher in the Cup standings and began the playoffs slotted seventh.
“This whole group, this team, we are not a 16th-place-in-points team,” Blaney said. "We showed it all year. We have had speed. It is just a matter of closing it out. We are way better than that and hopefully we can show it this weekend.”
The demise for the Team Penske group began with the playoff opener when his crew failed to notice a 5-pound bag of lead used for car setup at the shop had not been removed from the Ford prior to inspection at Darlington Raceway. Blaney was docked 10 points, crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for the race and his 24th-place finish dropped him to 15th in the playoff standings.
But the No. 12 team was also off last week at Richmond, where Blaney finished 19th to fall to the edge of elimination.
“There are things we could have done better as a whole group to make sure we weren’t in this position,” Blaney said. “It is a bummer that we are in this position. It has been a rough two races and the round of 16 is a round that you can’t really screw up and we have managed to have a couple of screwups and find ourselves in this spot.”
Blaney can't afford to ride around the 0.533-mile bullring at Bristol, where officials have sold all 30,000 tickets available to spectators. He knows the race will be aggressive and the crowd is expecting to see the bumping-and-banging that was once a revered part of Bristol's racing.