Yesterday’s race ended with a “surprise” win from Ryan Blaney who was able to hold off William Byron and Kyle Larson for his second win of the season. I put quotation marks over surprise because while Blaney did not have the fastest car, I think he has been underrated as the playoffs draw near. People are not looking for Blaney to win, and that’s why these playoffs could shock most fans.
The consensus around Blaney has been that he Is the new “good for them” driver of the young generation. A Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman, or Clint Bowyer type; someone who will be around for fifteen years and win races and be a guy everyone likes to see win, but never more than that. If you’re someone with that opinion, then you might be in or surprise as early as this season.
We’ve seen Blaney make the playoffs all but one season since starting his NASCAR Cup Series career and get as high as seventh in the standings. Coming off of a regressive season in 2020, he wasn’t given much attention when it comes to the championship battle. It’s also easy to be overlooked when you’re the third option on a Ford team that has been lackluster compared to their usual success in a Chevy-dominated season.
Quietly Blaney has been one of the most consistent drivers in the last 10 races with 1 win, 5 top fives, and 6 top tens. He has the most momentum he’s ever built heading into the playoffs, and this could be the best dark horse pick for the championship this season.
The bugaboo for Blaney fans is because the first round of the playoffs consists of his 23rd, 24th, and 28th best statistical tracks out of 29 he has raced on in Cup. These tracks are exactly what ended his 2020 playoff run last year, a very bad bunch of tracks for him to open with.
Once he gets past round one though, his track record is considerably better. He has won at two of the seven tracks in Charlotte and Talladega and boasts at least a 50% top ten rate at every remaining track. Honestly, once he gets past round one, the schedule is nearly tailor-made for him.
Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol are the three races that make up the first round. While these are tracks he’s had struggles at in the past, he’s trending up this season. I wouldn’t call his struggles here over, but there is the possibility that he’s starting to figure the tracks out. Even if his struggles rear their ugly heads in round one, I have little doubt that with his two wins he will be able to perform well enough to make it out of the first round.
Once he makes it to round two, it’s almost smooth sailing if you look at his track rcord. He has more of a straight line to the final four than any other non-Hendrick driver. The biggest catalyst in this argument is Martinsville. Martinsville is the final race before the championship 4 and it is a race he could very realistically be the favorite in by the time we get there. At the race earlier this year, he had the car to beat and while he had some competition late, he still was looking to be in victory lane by the end of it. He had his pit crew give away his chance at a win on the last pit stop, but there is no doubt Todd Gordon will have this car ready to go again.
Here is Blaney’s last finish at every playoff track:
Las Vegas: 5th
Roval: 5th (2020)
Out of all 10 tracks that will be visited in the playoffs, Blaney’s last starts consist of 3 top tens and 6 top tens. He had only one finish outside of the top 15 at Kansas where he had issues late in the race after finishing 8th and 6th in each stage respectively.
If Blaney makes it to Phoenix he is coming off of two straight top-ten finishes and a stage win earlier in the season. His teammates Keselowski and Logano also had part of the special setup that allowed all four competitors to run in the top five all race long last season; these notes will be shared with Blaney and Gordon.
He is a dark horse in the championship conversation, but he is by no means an underdog. His stats speak for themselves in terms of what he’s able to do once playoffs start. It’s criminal how underrated Blaney’s 2021 season has been this far and we may be finally seeing the breakout that fans have been waiting for since he took over the 12.