DARLINGTON, SC (AP) – Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon had no idea what their post-season plans were until the drama-filled final moments of NASCAR’s regular season.
Now, they’ve changed their focus from scrambling to make the 16-team playoff field to chasing the Cup Series title when the 10-race postseason begins Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
“We’ll take it as a survival and progression mode from now on,” Dillon said with a smile.
Dillon and the Richard Childress Racing team have already done a lot of that. Needing a victory to reach the playoffs, DeLeon pulled off a scary 22 lap wreck from the finish at Daytona last Sunday.
Then Dillon waited during the rain delay of more than three hours Before returning to the track for his first win of the season. There was joy in the pits after the checkered flag and joy in the race shop, who had suddenly begun preparing for Dillon’s fifth playoff ride in the past seven years.
“I’m glad to be in this place and I think we’re the dog[under],” said Dillon, the last 16 seed headed to the South 500. It’s fine with me because it takes the pressure off and we’ll have fun.”
Blaney and his team, Penske, also felt pressure last Sunday. They fell behind Martin Truex Jr in the points race for a late-place finish during Daytona.
Blaney fell out of contention there after being in a crash late in the first stage, but he also managed to get past the final wrecks mostly and was racing at the end. That was enough to move him forward by three points on Truex and onto the field.
It’s like, ‘Okay, everything’s reset,’ Blaney said, ‘we can really go for it now.
Blaney, in the playoffs for the sixth season in a row, admitted the difficulty of battling Truex as well as staying top of his close runners-up in the points standings last month.
When the calculations were complete and Blaney was up and running, he got “a little fresh air, and everything resets”.
Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion, is the top seed in the final and leads the circuit with four wins.
Joey Logano, the second seed and 2017 series champion, won at Darlington in May. First-time supplement driver Ross Chastain is seeded third and defending champion Kyle Larson starts fourth.
Blaney is the seventh seed and has five wins in stages – a draw more than any participant in the playoff. But he struggled in Darlington. In 11 races of the Professional Cup Series, he took one of the top 10 races.
Four riders will be eliminated after the opening round of three races, with Kansas and Bristol after Darlington. The Southern 500 winner, if a playoff driver, automatically makes it to the second round, which begins in Texas on September 25.
Dillon’s best playoff rounds came in 2016 and 2020, when he passed the opening round before failing to advance from the round of 12.
He’s had strong laps at Darlington recently, finishing in the top 10 in three of the past four races there.
Dillon will have no problem flipping the switch to the interval races. The season saw 16 winners — Kansas winner Kurt Bosch relinquished his place in the playoffs due to his continued recovery from a concussion after suffering a crash in Pocono earlier this summer — meaning the drivers have to be aggressive in every race.
That shouldn’t change during qualifying.
“We will keep an eye on where everyone is running during the race and go from there,” Dillon said. “I think we have to stay on the same (aggressive) strategic path that we have taken.”
Blaney advanced to the quarter-finals three times, in 2017, 2019 and 2021. Blaney and Penske’s crew dusted off the Darlington plan, which Blaney said they were going to use whether or not in the playoffs.
He’s grateful to Team 12 that stayed on track and will compete for the championship.
“It’s a little bit, I guess you could say, maybe a new life,” said Blaney. “We weren’t dead before, but it was definitely a different mindset.”
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