By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – In NASCAR, as in any sport, momentum is huge and Ryan Blaney has the momentum firmly on his side heading into the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
After making it to the Round of 8, but ultimately missing out on the Championship 4 for one reason or another over the last two seasons, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford arrives in Phoenix with a chance at racing for a championship for the first time in his Cup career.
Blaney punched his ticket to the Playoffs with a win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but over the course of the summer, things began to unravel as the team had appeared to lose its way and was heading in the wrong direction as the postseason loomed.
However, the team began to turn things around in the Playoffs, advancing through the first round, followed by a win at Talladega in the second round to move to the Round of 8 for the third year in a row.
For a moment following his sixth-place finish at Las Vegas, the wheels appeared to be coming off once again when the No. 12 team was slapped with a disqualification. Ultimately, the DQ was reversed, restoring the crucial points lost on the day.
Blaney returned to the track the following week with a runner-up finish at Homestead to put himself in position to either race his way into the Championship 4 at Martinsville on points or by going out and winning the race to claim his spot in the title race.
With a dominant run in the late stages of the race at Martinsville took the latter route, winning his third race of the season to move on to the season finale with a chance at the championship.
“I think what we’ve been doing the last three weeks, we’re plenty capable of winning the championship,” Blaney said. “The execution we’ve had has been pretty remarkable. I feel like we had the best speed and best races out of anybody in the round of eight. You just hope to keep doing that. Our group can.
“This group is definitely poised to do it. We had a good shot at it last year. I think we learned from what kept us from winning a championship last year and have been able to apply it this year. Just have to go do our job Sunday…
“Everyone is doing their job really well right now and their confidence is high. All those things have kind of culminated into this moment, this weekend.
“It’s one of those things that, like, you try and try to do every year, but it’s hard to do. It’s hard to get all those pieces together where everyone is running on all cylinders. Our group is definitely firing on all cylinders right now. Proud of them for that, for sure.”
Blaney added that the slump his team went through in the summer could have sunk them, but instead his team buckled down and solved the problems at hand, which led to their resurgence in the Playoffs and helped deliver them to where we are now with a chance at battling for the championship.
“The job we’ve done in the last month has been pretty remarkable, something to be proud of,” Blaney said. “On our side, it wasn’t a secret we struggled in the summer. Feel like everything we were trying to get better just wasn’t working, right?
“That can get frustrating, but no one gave up at our group. Everyone beared down, they didn’t complain, get upset. They just did the work. They worked really hard to get where we need to be. That’s the culmination. It’s not like it happens overnight. These things take a lot of time. It took months this summer to get where we are now.
“I’m proud of that effort. But we definitely got good momentum. Hopefully we can continue it for Sunday.”
A year ago, Blaney was in the thick of the race for the win with teammate Joey Logano, but ultimately settled for a runner-up finish while Logano won the race and the championship. Earlier this season, Blaney replicated that result with a second place finish behind fellow championship contender William Byron.
Given his recent results at Phoenix, it only seems logical that Blaney should once again be one of the drivers to beat on Sunday.
“You hope you learn from what made us so good last year in this race,” Blaney said. “I thought Joey and our car were the best two by far in this race last year. Good enough for him to win the championship, us to run second. You hope to learn from that.
“You hope to learn from the spring this year. I’m not a huge believer of solely relying on things you learned in the past at these tracks because things change all the time. You have to be willing to switch up things here and then for going back to these tracks. You can’t just rely on your old stuff and expect it to run good. You have to continue to evolve.
“Hopefully we do that. Hopefully we bring the same speed we had here last year. That would be very nice.”