In a split-second, Ryan Blaney’s comfort level in the Playoffs went from high to nonexistent.
All it took was an error in judgment by Austin Dillon in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 to end a potential top-10 finish for the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford and turn the Cup standings upside down.
Blaney entered the second race in the Round of 8 ranked second, with a nine-point buffer above the cut line. Entering this weekend’s contest at Martinsville Speedway, he’s now fifth in the Playoffs and sits one point below fourth-place Kyle Busch. Chase Elliott vaulted to second behind winner and points leader Kyle Larson following a second-place run.
Call it the Kansas City Shuffle.
“We got run into from two lanes below me,” Blaney said. “Obviously it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime. We didn’t have a great day, but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”
Following Joey Logano’s engine failure at Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 22 team was in a must-win situation to advance into the Championship 4 Round. After Sunday’s drama, Logano has plenty of company below the cut line. Logano wasn’t the only driver who experienced calamity in the Lone Star State. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were plagued with problems as well.
But at Kansas, half of the contenders had problems on Sunday. In addition to Blaney’s bad fortune, a litany of issues for Kyle Busch started 23 laps into the race when he cut a tire and hit the wall. While he was able to recover, Busch’s car never handled well after the incident.
“We’re still standing,” said Kyle Busch, who fell 31 points behind third-place Hamlin. “We can go fight another day.
“Third to seventh looks pretty tight, I guess, so there’s still a race. It’s going to come down to points."
Brad Keselowski had tire issues that were compounded by overheating in the later stages of the race. Despite posting five top 10s in the previous seven races, Keselowski was on the outside looking in leading into Kansas. Although his 15-point deficit to fourth-place Busch entering the Sunflower State shrank to six points, Keselowski now has Truex (-3) and Blaney (-1) between him and the No. 18 team.
“We will do all we can do, and that is all we can do,” Keselowski said. “Winning would obviously lock our way in, but as you saw this week, as crazy as these races get, I'm not sure that isn’t what you have to do.”
With one race to determine the Championship 4, only Larson is locked in. No, Martinsville has never been his favorite track. But Larson had not won at any of the nine venues were he’s been victorious in 2021 prior to this year. Of the seven other Playoff contenders, all but Blaney have won at NASCAR’s oldest track. Hamlin leads all active drivers with five wins on the half-mile, but Truex has won three of the last four Martinsville races.
The defending winner of the Xfinity 500 is Chase Elliott, who crashed the Championship 4 party with his victory last year and went on to win his first Cup championship. With the strength of the Round of 8 contestants—and Larson’s domination of late—the battle up front will be worth the price of admission on Sunday.