Kevin Harvick took a quantum leap when he vaulted over Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. from 17th in the Playoff standings to 10th with his Michigan Speedway win on Sunday.
Harvick became the 15th different winner of the 2022 Cup season—the first time since the introduction of the elimination format in 2014 that 15 different winners have occupied the Playoff grid.
Certainly, Harvick’s victory was a game-changer for the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing squad. The win also elevated the sense of urgency for Blaney and Truex. Just 19 points separate the No. 12 Team Penske crew from the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing squad with only three races remaining to determine the final Playoff spot for the 2022 NASCAR Cup championship.
“It’s a shame that another car won,” said Blaney, who finished fifth at Michigan. “I’m happy for Ford for winning, but we didn’t need the 4 car to win. We’ll just try to win the next few weeks and battle the 19 in points.
“It’ll be exciting, that’s for sure, so hopefully we can do it.”
Doubtless, it was not the type of excitement Blaney was hoping for when the season started. Neither he nor Truex, who has 31 career Cup wins, have visited Victory Lane this year. In his seventh full season, Blaney has seven career wins. Last year was his breakout year with three victories—his first multi-win season.
Blaney's consistency has enabled him to remain second in the point standings for 11 of the last 18 races. He has led laps in 18 of 23 races. But when it comes to the end game, Blaney hasn’t been able to capitalize.
Michigan was just the opposite. After a poor qualifying effort, Blaney started the FireKeepers Casino 400 24th and spent the entire race trying to recover. He gained two spots before the competition caution on Lap 20, missed the J.J. Yeley melee that collected teammate Austin Cindric on Lap 25, and then finished 16th in Stage 1. A two-tire pit stop elevated Blaney to fifth to start Stage 2. He climbed to third before falling back again while complaining of a tight-handling car. He finished Stage 2 in 20th and restarted 14th for the final segment on Lap 127.
Over the next 39 laps, Blaney worked his way up to seventh for the final green-flag run. He was in the top five with seven laps remaining when he tagged the wall, allowing Truex to pass him. But Blaney rallied. Over the final six laps, he passed the No. 19 Toyota and finished fifth.
“I just passed him back,” Blaney said. “I don’t know. I was just racing another guy. That’s all I care about. It was nice to get him back, so that was good to get it back and get a top five.
“We were terrible all day. We ran 20th all day long and just struggled a lot and worked on it a ton and got a little bit better and better there and ended up with a decent finish out of it. It was big gains from where we started.”
Yet after Harvick’s win, Blaney finds himself on the bubble. He’s the only driver in the top 16 without a win. And if Truex or any other winless driver inside the top 30 pulls off a victory in the next three races, Blaney will miss the Playoffs for the first time since his 2016 rookie season.
Before the season started, it was hard to fathom 15 winners.
“I can now,” Blaney said.
With the introduction of the new car, no one really knew what to expect in 2022. While there has been additional practice and testing in the post-pandemic era, there hasn't been anywhere close to enough time to shake down a new car, as had been the case in previous years. For some drivers, the lack of seat time has proven to be problematic. Perhaps that’s why no one driver has stood out as the clear-cut favorite nearing the postseason.
Even Truex, who has been remarkably consistent over the last eight seasons and scored 29 of his 31 wins during that period, has not been able to finish higher than fourth this season. He has been solid at Richmond Raceway, the site of this weekend’s contest, scoring three wins in his last six starts on the .75-mile track and finishing fourth in the new car in April.
Blaney won the pole at Richmond in the spring. He led a career-high 128 laps at the track before finishing seventh.
Given Truex’s success at the track, what’s Blaney’s strategy?
“It’s always a challenge every single week you go,” Blaney said. “We sat on the pole and won the first stage at Richmond in the spring, so that was nice. We just tried to build off of that and what did we need later in the race to try to stay up there, so hopefully those things apply and we can turn around and make it even better and contend. That’s all you can do.
“We’ll race the 19, obviously, for points and try to win the race. We’ll try to do both.”
Still, 19 points is a slim margin. While Richmond doesn’t have a wild card feel to it, Watkins Glen and Daytona International Speedway—the site of the regular-season finale—most certainly do. If another new winner emerges inside of the top 30, Blaney will find himself on the outside looking in.