By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The last man standing.
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. came into Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona holding on to the final two NASCAR Cup Series Playoff spots, just hoping to survive the day and keep ahold of those positions in the points.
However, a clean day is the exact opposite of what they got, with both drivers sustaining damage at various points of the race that threw the battle for the postseason into complete disarray.
It took just 32 laps for Blaney’s day to go awry, when he got collected in a six-car incident on the backstretch. Despite the damage to his car, the No. 12 team went to work immediately, getting their driver back on track under the time allotted by the Damaged Vehicle Policy to keep him in the hunt.
Although his Ford was wounded, being able to stay on track would be crucial down the stretch.
Truex looked to be in the catbird seat in the second half of the race, running strong and keeping his nose clean before things took a turn for the worse when he was swept up in an eight-car crash on the backstretch on lap 103.
Much like Blaney’s crew, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing crew got Truex back in action and allowed him to stay on the lead lap. He steered clear of further damage in subsequent cautions on lap 126 and 132, as well as staying out of the rain-induced melee on lap 139.
That’s when things got interesting for both Blaney and Truex.
Austin Dillon somehow managed to skate through the lap 139 crash to take the lead, while Truex had managed to gain enough ground in the points race to overtake Blaney when the rains came and brought out the red flag.
If the race were to be called with 21 laps still on the board and Dillon as the victor, Truex would be the 16th and final driver in the Playoffs, with Blaney as the driver on the outside looking in.
However, if the race were to be resumed, Blaney would have a fighting chance to try and move up the leaderboard enough to retake his lost ground in the points race.
The key to it all would be the driver that ended the day in Victory Lane. If a driver that had already won a race this season captured another win, both drivers would be in, but if a driver like Dillon won the race, it would come down to track position over the final run to the checkered flag to determine whether it would be Blaney or Truex as the last man standing.
First, Dillon led the way, with Truex running in the top-five and Blaney inching up the leaderboard, surpassing those drivers that were out of the race. Then Blaney’s teammate Austin Cindric took over the point and it looked as if both drivers were home free.
However, things are never simple in superspeedway racing, as Dillon moved Cindric out of the lead with three laps to go, putting the focus back on Blaney and Truex.
As the laps clicked away, Blaney climbed further up the leaderboard, eventually settling in at 15th – the highest position he could attain being six laps down. Meanwhile, Truex faded from the top-five when the race resumed to eighth at the finish.
That delta would make all the dfference as Blaney retook the final Playoff spot by a mere three points, leaving Truex as the odd man out.
“We had to battle through adversity all day, but props to the whole 12 group for continuing to work on it and fix it and just trying to keep it in the game,” Blaney said. “After that wreck everything was kind of out of our hands and we were just trying to do the best we could to try and complete all the laps.
“You never know what can happen, so props to them. Fortunately, we were able to gain some points there at the end and locked us in. It was definitely nerve racking, but a lot of props to the 12 team.”
Truex explained that the damage he had sustained on his car during the race ultimately became his downfall in the final run to the finish.
“We just had too much damage at the end,” he said. “We had a good spot on the restart and we got a good restart. We got the 2 (Austin Cindric) up front, which is what we were trying to do, but just couldn’t keep up. Just too much damage. It’s a shame.
“We knew it was going to be tough with so many cars out of the race and the distance between me and the 12 (Ryan Blaney). It was going to be hard to hang on to fourth or better with a car that torn up.”
Any other year, even without a win, drivers sitting third and fourth in points would be a shoe-in for a Playoff spot, but the 2022 season has not been a normal year.
Both drivers will now take different forks of the same road, with Blaney moving on to fight for a championship and Truex just looking to improve over the final 10 races of the season.