Imagine being Ryan Blaney for a moment.
You’ve been top-five in points since the sixth race of the season, yet somehow, some way, you have to sweat it out all the way until the waning laps of the regular season finale at Daytona – Race 26.
Welcome to NASCAR in 2022.
Blaney – like everyone else – had to wait out a 3-plus hour rain delay last Sunday while relying on his crew to keep his car in raceable condition after an early wreck.
For much of the day, the ever-consistent Blaney found himself behind fellow winless driver Martin Truex Jr. in points as a result of his wreck, and making matters worse, Austin Dillon passed a train of cars to take the lead after a big wreck in a rain-soaked Turn 1 before NASCAR could display the yellow flag.
Not only did that give Dillon the 15th spot on the Playoff grid temporarily as he came into the race needing a win – it meant that Blaney was out of the Playoffs.
Talk about a precarious and unenviable position to be in with just 21 laps to go.
Fortunately for Blaney, NASCAR made the obvious decision to wait out the rain and restart the race when the skies cleared.
Because of the aforementioned wreck that propelled Dillon to the lead, several of the cars involved were unable to continue, allowing Blaney to pass enough of them when the race resumed that he wound up three points ahead of Truex when Dillon crossed under the checkered flag.
(By the way, Dillon made the race-winning move with three laps remaining, otherwise Austin Cindric may have won his second race of the season and Truex and Blaney both would’ve made the Playoffs anyway. Not much is simple about NASCAR anymore, folks.)
So, when the day was over in Daytona, Blaney left the track knowing the goal was accomplished, albeit with even more nervousness than he and his team had planned for.
While Blaney may have been the last car to earn a postseason berth, any objective fan would acknowledge that he shouldn’t have even been in that position to begin with. (I know, I know, “But he couldn’t even win one race. He deserved to miss the Playoffs!” or something like that.)
Blaney has been a model of consistency this season, and there’s still something to be said for that attribute.
Blaney was 212 points above Erik Jones – the proverbial cutline – heading into Daytona. 212!
But because of the new winner, Dillon, who himself had 275 fewer points than Blaney coming into Daytona, Blaney almost missed the Playoffs.
Regardless of how asinine I may think that is, the point is that Blaney clearly deserved to be in the Playoffs, and it isn’t crazy to view him as one of the favorites.
Which is why he is my pick to win the championship in November.
Let’s take a look at some numbers, shall we?
While he doesn’t (yet) have a win – unless of course you count the All-Star Race – Blaney finished third in the regular-season standings; earned five stage wins; 3 poles; eight top-fives; and 12 top-10s.
He has the fourth best average finish in the garage, and the second best average running position. Blaney has also been outside the top-10 in points on just one occasion the entire season – way back after Race 3.
Blaney has led 417 laps this season to boot, but perhaps the most important factor working in his favor? Second through 16th on the Playoff grid are separated by only 20 points (Blaney is tied for sixth with 2013 points).
Traditionally we have seen two or three drivers with a hoard of Playoff points, followed by two or three with slightly fewer, and then the bottom 10 or so have practically none in comparison.
That simply isn’t the case with the advent of the Next Gen car and parity in the sport. This to me means that consistency is precisely what is needed to separate oneself from the pack in these Playoffs.
In the opening round of the Playoffs, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him win at Bristol, a track he’s led 484 laps in 12 career races.
In the Playoffs’ second-round tracks, Blaney has an All-Star victory at Texas, two career wins at Talladega, and a win in the inaugural edition of the Charlotte ROVAL race in 2018.
The third round of the Playoffs sees two of Blaney’s best tracks: Las Vegas (eight career top-10s) and the season’s penultimate race at Martinsville (six top-fives and 377 laps led in 13 races).
For the forgetful, the championship race is once again at Phoenix Raceway. What are Blaney’s stats there, you ask?
In the last seven races in the desert, Blaney has four top-fives and 306 laps led. Just this season, he started on pole, won a stage and led 143 laps. While he hasn’t yet claimed victory there, Blaney and crew have a tremendous notebook from which to build come November.
What a storybook ending it would be for Blaney – who assuredly had thoughts of what-if-I-miss-the-Playoffs just a week ago – to ride his consistency through the Playoffs to his first Cup championship.
I for one expect it to happen, and believe Blaney will propel himself to “Elite” level in NASCAR’s top series once and for all.