It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which the opening round of the NASCAR Playoffs could have gone worse for Ryan Blaney and his Team Penske operation. The No. 12 Ford team found itself in a hole before the green flag even waved to start the Cook Out Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway on Sunday night.
Due to an improperly mounted ballast weight found by NASCAR officials during a routine pre-race inspection, Blaney and his team were docked 10 points and crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended by the sanctioning body. Further, the driver who had earned his spot in the playoffs by winning earlier in the season at Talladega was forced to start at the rear of the field on Sunday.
All of those factors led to a 24th place finish, worst among the 16 drivers locked into the playoff hunt. Blaney now ranks dead last in the standings among the championship contenders.
“Definitely wasn’t our night for our Menards/Maytag team,” Blaney was quoted as saying on the Team Penske website. “We had the inspection penalty and lost points before the race started and had some bad breaks. We’ll get ready for Richmond and Bristol and try to gain ground back in the playoffs.”
NASCAR’s playoff format calls for the final ten races to be broken into segments with the four drivers who have the lowest point totals and have not won a race within that segment to be dropped from contention at the end of each until the field has been cut to four drivers who will compete for the title in the series finale. So, Blaney has two races to get himself into the top-12 before the first cut is made.
But there is a problem in that scenario for the 26-year-old driver. The two tracks remaining in this first segment rank among the worst statistically for this driver. Richmond Raceway is the host for the next NASCAR Cup Series race then Bristol Motor Speedway will serve as the site for the first playoff cut.
In eight career starts at Richmond, Blaney has never scored a top-10 finish. For that matter, his average result there is 25th. Perhaps even more disturbing than those numbers is that he has never really demonstrated that he can run up front on the three-quarter mile layout as he has never led a NASCAR Cup Series single lap in the Virginia state capital.
If ground is to be made up by the No. 12 team, there is little to indicate that it will be done in Richmond. But even though statistics paint a somewhat better picture in Bristol, there is still reason for concern.
In ten career starts at “The Last Great Colosseum” Blaney has managed a top-5 result along with four top-10 finishes. However, his average finish in Thunder Valley still ranks as a 21st, which is among his worst.
When Blaney’s days go badly at Bristol, they go very badly. He has finished 33rd or worse a total of four times on the high-banked concrete track. That includes this past spring when he crashed early and was credited with a 40th place result.
It goes without saying that Ryan Blaney and his Team Penske crew have to finish better than what their statistical averages for the next two tracks show or they will be one of the first four teams eliminated from the 2020 version of the NASCAR Playoffs.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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