Looking for a dark horse at Phoenix? Ryan Blaney could be the ticket

Looking for a dark horse at Phoenix? Ryan Blaney could be the ticket
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AVONDALE, Ariz.—Ryan Blaney is down but far from out of a transfer spot into the Championship 4 round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Sure, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford is 23 points below the cut line occupied by his teammate, Joey Logano, who is currently fourth in the standings. But when it comes to recent Playoff performance combined with past results at ISM Raceway, Blaney should not be overlooked among the final eight contenders.

His strategy entering Sunday’s BlueGreen Vacations 500?

“Gotta win,” Blaney said after finishing eighth last week at Texas Motor Speedway. “Hopefully, we go do that.”

Given Blaney’s performance with the new aerodynamic package, that’s not out of the question. In March, Blaney won the pole and led a career-best 94 laps at the one-mile track before finishing third behind Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

But Busch will be in attack mode come Sunday, since he’s not locked into the title round. Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota will put all its resources behind the No. 18, with Busch having the best shot at winning at Homestead-Miami along with Truex, who transferred with his Martinsville Speedway win.

Still, Blaney’s average qualifying effort of 5.7 at Phoenix is a personal best and ranks second only to Chase Elliott’s 5.4 among current drivers. In seven starts, Blaney has two poles and three top-10 finishes at the track.

Starting up front is advantageous to gaining stage points and avoiding trouble. Although Blaney scored his sixth top-10 finish in the Playoffs last week, he picked up just two stage points after finishing eighth in the first segment.

“It’s hard to make up points because all these teams and drivers left (in the Playoffs) are really good,” Blaney said. “They’re going to run up front all day and get a lot of points.

“We ran really good at Phoenix. You’re driving harder. The car is stuck to the race track. With the spoiler and the splitter being taller and bigger, you drive the cars harder. We’re going faster there than we ever have and you definitely feel it behind the wheel.”

After Kevin Harvick’s victory last weekend at Texas, two transfer spots remain. Here’s how Blaney’s competition lines up:

Kyle Busch—Busch won in the spring at Phoenix. He has three wins and three poles at ISM Raceway. Busch has an average finish of 11.1 at ISMR and has been running at the finish in 27 of 28 races. Currently third in the standings, Busch can clinch by scoring 34 points if Truex, Harvick or Logano wins or with 53 points if there’s a winner from the bottom four in the current Playoff grid.

Joey Logano—Logano’s sole win at Phoenix came in the 2016 fall race. He has four top fives, 10 top 10s and four DNFs in 21 starts. Logano clinches a spot with 55 points and a new Playoff-eligible winner or 36 points should Harvick, Truex or Busch win.

Denny Hamlin—Hamlin once seemed to be a lock for the Final Four, but lately not so much. Hamlin has one win (2012) in 28 ISM starts. He’s 20 points behind Logano but could lock in with a win.

Kyle Larson—Larson is tied with Blaney in points. Since his win at Dover, he has just one top-10 finish a ninth at Martinsville. Larson has improved tremendously at Phoenix. He has four finishes of sixth or better—including three podiums—in his last six starts. Likely needs a win or a lot of help from those ahead of him in the standings.

Chase Elliott—Between wrecks and mechanical failures, Elliott is now in the Playoff cellar—80 points below the cutline. Only a win will advance the No. 9 to the Championship 4 Round. While he’s a solid qualifying at Phoenix and has two top fives and four top 10s in seven starts, Elliott finished 14th with the new car and track configuration in March.

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