Throughout the Playoffs, Ryan Blaney hadn’t been labeled as one of the championship favorites, due to the struggles that Team Penske has found across the board throughout the season.
But, after Sunday’s Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway, the 29-year-old driver has gotten the attention of everybody, flipping that narrative upside down with his third victory of the season, and the 10th of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
“Yeah, it’s awesome,” Blaney said about the victory. “I grew up in High Point, not too far from here. Closer to High Point honestly, Martinsville than Charlotte. Really cool. Wanting to win here for a long time. Been super close for many years. Awesome to close it out.”
Leading 145 of 500 laps, second to only Denny Hamlin, it was evident that Blaney had a car capable of contending for the victory, but his theatrics during the final green-flag run of the afternoon, which lasted 171 laps, had many people in awe.
A native of High Point, North Carolina, Blaney was able to slice through the pack during the final stage, getting around the drivers who elected to stay on-track at the race’s final yellow – and those who played alternate tire strategies – to get himself into the top-five.
Upon moving into third place, Blaney had fallen more than six seconds behind race leader Aric Almirola with less than 100 laps to go, who in his final season, looked to have Sunday’s 500-lap contest in the bag, barring any significant forces.
As no cautions were displayed for the final 171 laps, Almirola began to catch the tail-end of the field, which eventually turned into the middle of the field, and towards the end of the race, cars inside the top-20, which allowed Blaney to take chunks out of the lead.
With 23 laps remaining, Blaney got to the rear bumper of Almirola, wasting no time in jumping to the outside – a move he had perfected throughout the day – and taking over the lead, before setting sail towards the checkered flag.
Scoring the victory by 0.899 seconds, Blaney locked himself into the Championship 4, as the series heads to one of his best tracks, Phoenix Raceway, for the championship finale in one week.
“Well, I mean, felt like we put together really strong Playoffs. Especially the Round of 8, we had a good run in the whole Round of 8,” said Blaney.”Yeah, just overall really proud of the whole effort.”
After announcing his retirement from full-time competition Saturday, Aric Almirola had by far his best run of the season, coming home in second place for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Denny Hamlin, who came into Martinsville with the mindset of needing to win, finished third, after leading a race-high 154 laps at the half-mile paperclip he’s found much success at throughout his career.
Chase Briscoe finished in fourth place, while Joey Logano, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, finished in fifth. Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell finished just behind in sixth and seventh, and will advance to the Final Four at Phoenix, via their wins earlier in the ‘Round of 8’.
After a disappointing pair of races to start the ‘Round of 8’, Chris Buescher came home in eighth place, but that was merely not enough to move onto Championship 4 with his RFK Racing team.
Austin Cindric and Todd Gilliland, two drivers in their second seasons of full-time competition, also earned solid finishes of ninth and 10th at Martinsville. However, it was the positions outside the top-10 that had the field stressing.
After a speeding penalty in the second stage, and numerous slow stops on pit road, Martin Truex, Jr. was unable to parlay his regular-season title into a Championship 4 berth after finishing in 12th.
One spot behind, in 13th, was William Byron, who managed to muster enough points for his No. 24 Chevrolet to advance to Phoenix with a shot at the title, after rebounding from a horrible race.
After a spin in qualifying, Sunday was not any better for Tyler Reddick than Saturday was, with the 23XI Racing driver not even coming close to advancing, after finishing a disappointing 26th.
Heading to Phoenix, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, and William Byron will be eligible to win the championship, with three of four drivers looking for their first NASCAR Cup Series title, and Larson looking for his second.
Race Results – Xfinity 500 at Martinsville: