The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff grid was dramatically changed once again and the changes, which elevated Martin Truex Jr. inside the cutline, didn’t even occur on a Raceday, that’s just been the wild type of year that the teams have experienced in 2022.
On Thursday, Kurt Busch and 23XI Racing announced that they would pull their medical waiver that essentially “reserved” a spot in the post-season for Busch, who won the race at Kansas Speedway earlier in the year, despite missing the last five Cup Series races.
Busch already had this weekend at Daytona written off as a potential return and now will not come back for the start of the Playoffs which left the team with the decision to remove him out of championship contention.
With 15 total winners through 25 events, it has left two consistent front runners in the field to be on the edge of not making the Playoffs. That would be winless, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., even though both are firmly within the top-six of the points standings, they file in Playoff positions 15th and 16th heading into Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
With Busch’s exit from post-season possibility, Blaney’s situation has become much simpler because he does not have the risk of a non-winner, that stands top-30 in the points, capturing the checkered flag and bumping him to 17th, unless he gives up a 25 point advantage he has over Truex.
However, the 28-year-old thinks the plan is the same as before and there is no need for stress.
“I mean the stress level to me wasn’t really that high even after the [Watkins] Glen,” Blaney said in a media availability on Friday. “You can’t stress yourself out about that stuff, you just got to understand what job you have to do going into Daytona and it’s no stress to our side. After the Glen, we were in. We weren’t stressful for the guys that have to win or on the outside looking in, so my attitude didn’t change at all.
“The only thing that changed was that you hope that Kurt [Busch] gets better. We are competitors, we try to beat each other every week, but you never want to see anybody get hurt. I know he’s been going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Collins, helped my dad [Dave] and Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. out. Hopefully Kurt gets better, that’s really the only thing that came through my mind when I heard that.”
Even with Toyota losing Kurt Busch as a Playoff competitor, Truex enters the fold. Truex’s Playoff chances were scarcer than Blaney’s leaving Watkins Glen, he seemingly would need to find victory lane at Daytona, a track where he has never accomplished that feat, unless Blaney, who won this race a season ago, found severe trouble.
Now, he stands as the last car in and simply does not need a driver outside the current post-season grid to win and lock themselves in.
While things look better, Truex doesn’t count his chickens before they hatch.
“For us, we are not in until it’s over tomorrow night so I don’t really have any feelings either way, here to race, I’m excited,” Truex said about his Playoff berth chances. “Two scenarios, one we get in on points, win the race. That would be optimal because of the owner’s points situation. We’ll see, how it all plays out and make our own way here.”
The pair will have to endure the potential and likely nutty event that superspeedway racing typically produces, especially in a last chance dash to make it into the Playoffs. Blaney is a three-time winner on the Superspeedways (two wins at Talladega and one at Daytona) so there has to be some level of comfort for the Team Penske driver.
However, a season ago, he entered this weekend with two wins compared to zero this time around.
“You’re getting so much information and you are trying to react to things in tenths of a second, thousandths of second,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of time to think about stuff, it’s a lot of reactionary things that you have to do. The timing here is so important, if your spotter tells you something and you think on it for a moment, you’ve missed out, you’ve missed out on your opportunity to get in a lane. You have to really be trustworthy of your spotter and do things that come natural to you at these racetracks.
“You never know how the end of these things are going to play out, that’s the unpredictable thing. You try to just put yourself in a spot coming down to the end of these things to position yourself up front, whether you are on offense and defense, you always just try to find yourself towards the front half of the field and hope you’re still running and not on a flatbed and sitting in a trailer.”
It’s been hit or miss for a lot of the races for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota as a whole this season, but when they go to a track where they can find pace, they are noticeably atop the speed charts. In the 2022 Daytona 500, Truex swept the stages before he ultimately finished 13th.
Then a trip to the Talladega Superspeedway had the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry team finish an impressive fifth.
So, while a win isn’t on his resume on Superspeedways, Truex feels good about his chances as well.
“I’d say I’m pretty optimistic,” Truex said. “What we did in February we can continue that, but you got to just stay out of the accidents, right? That’s the hardest thing to do here, you never know where they are going to happen you can be running second or third or you could be running 30th, trying to stay out of the mess.
“In February we led a bunch, had a little trouble on pit-road, went back mid-pack, coming back through and there’s a crash,” he said. “So, you just never know when or where it’s going to happen. But as far as our speed goes and the things we have been working between Drew [Herring, Spotter] and I, James [Smalls, Crew Chief], just feeling more confident this year, with this car in general and how it’s ran for us, think it’s pretty good.”
The large group that chases these two drivers and can lock themselves into the Playoffs with a win, consist of former Daytona winners: Erik Jones, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Justin Haley, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Brad Keselowski. Add Bubba Wallace as a superspeedway victor, along with another five hungry drivers that will try to make an appearance in the Playoffs and it could be a nail-biting conclusion to Saturday’s 400-miler at Daytona.