Blaney secures final Cup Series Playoffs berth at Daytona as Truex misses the cutline

It was a bizarre Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway that was postponed to Sunday morning and concluded on Sunday afternoon following a rain delay of more than three hours. The race featured Austin Dillon making the most of a “must-win” scenario by racing his way into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs and achieving his first elusive victory of the season.

It also provided a sense of relief for Ryan Blaney, who rallied from a long afternoon to salvage a top-15 finish and claim the 16th and final berth in the Playoffs by three points over Martin Truex Jr., who was given a late opportunity to retain his title hopes for this season but was unable to execute in the final stages of the event.

Following last weekend’s Cup event at Watkins Glen International, Blaney occupied the 16th and final transfer spot to the Playoffs by 25 points over Truex. Then on Thursday, Kurt Busch, who had been absent since suffering concussion-like symptoms at Pocono Raceway in July but had been granted an injury waiver to still be eligible for the Playoffs based on winning at Kansas Speedway in May, withdrew from Playoff contention. He determined that he would not be ready to return for the Playoffs and opted to focus on his health. With Busch out of contention, this left two of 16 spots in the Playoffs vacant and still to be determined entering Daytona, with Blaney in one guaranteed spot and Truex in another.

When the on-track qualifying session that determined the starting lineup slated for Friday got canceled due to rain, Truex rolled off the grid during Sunday’s main event in 13th place based on a metric formula per NASCAR’s rulebook while Blaney started 16th.

In the early stages of the main event, trouble ensued for Blaney, who was swept up in a Lap 30 multi-car wreck on the backstretch and sustained damage to his No. 12 Advance Auto Parts Ford Mustang after getting hit by a spinning Christopher Bell. Blaney’s pit crew managed to repair the damage to keep his car running at minimum speed, but he returned to the track three laps behind the leaders and with a flapped hood. While Blaney finished 34th in the first stage, Truex, who dodged the early multi-car wreck, managed to keep his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota TRD Camry intact and claim valuable stage points by finishing fifth in the first stage.

Like the first stage, the second stage fell into the favors of Truex, who worked with Toyota teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace in the draft, as he edged teammate Hamlin and Joey Logano to finish second and claim more valuable stage points in his bid to make the Playoffs. Blaney, however, could not maintain the draft with the pack and was lapped multiple times by the field before finishing in 34th place in the second stage while six laps behind.

The start of the third and final stage provided a tense for Truex, who was involved in a multi-car wreck in the backstretch after slipping sideways and getting hit by the spinning cars of Ross Chastain and William Byron before running through the grass and coming to a stop sideways with right-front fender damage. Despite the damage, Truex managed to limp his car back to pit road and remain on the lead lap while Blaney was still six laps behind.

Through two additional incidents, including the Big One with 23 laps remaining that consumed nearly the entire field, and a rain delay of more than three hours, Truex and Blaney continue to duke against one another for a spot in the Playoffs as the field restarted with 16 laps remaining and with 16 of 37 starters remaining on the track. While Blaney remained six laps behind the leaders but inside the top 20 on the track, Truex found himself in the top five and with an opportunity to contend for the win. The final 16 laps, however, did not fall in the favors of Truex, whose No. 19 Toyota still lacked speed from the damage sustained from the late incident and received no drafting help towards the front as he fell back within the top 10. Approaching the frontstretch on the final lap, Truex was in ninth and tried to gain a run on the lead pack. The run was not enough as he crossed the finish line in eighth place while Blaney moved up to 15th on the final leaderboard.

With Austin Dillon winning and leap-frogging himself from the outside and into the top-16 cutline to make the Playoffs in a “must-win” scenario, this made the final Playoff picture with one less spot available solely on points. As a result, Blaney, who gained spots amid the late wreckages, was able to grab the 16th and final spot to the Playoffs by three points over Truex.

With his accomplishment, Blaney, who won the 2022 non-points All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May but continues to pursue his first Cup points victory of the season, made the Playoffs for a sixth consecutive season and in his first season with new crew chief Jonathan Hassler atop the No. 12 pit box. Throughout the 26-race regular-season stretch, he has achieved three poles, five stage victories, eight top-five results, 12 top-10 results and an average-finishing result of 13.7 as he now sets his sights on contending for his first Cup Series championship while competing alongside teammates Austin Cindric and Joey Logano, both of whom also made the Playoffs.

“We’re very fortunate, that’s for sure,” Blaney, who was left relieved, said. “It was not a good day get going. You get torn up early and that point, our fate was not really in our hands. All we could do was try to keep working on it and fix it to where we could make laps. Thankfully, we were able to get enough cars throughout the wrecks that we kind of just kept moving up and we were able to get in. That’s definitely a lot more stressful than I wanted coming into here, but I just got to give a lot of props to the No. 12 group for fixing [the car] and sticking with it all day. That’s why you do it. Your day could start off like that and you just stay with them. Stay in the game and it was definitely beneficial for us, so I appreciate them. We’ll go race for a championship…Definitely, a roller coaster of emotions and luckily, it ended on a high for our group.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Truex, the 2017 Cup Series champion who was the championship runner-up a year ago to Kyle Larson, failed to make the Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014 in a regular-season stretch where he achieved a pole, seven stage victories, three top-five results, 12 top-10 results and an average-finishing result of 13.2. He is the lone Joe Gibbs Racing competitor to not make the Playoffs while teammates Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are set to contend for this year’s title. Nonetheless, he will embark on a 10-week stretch to contend for his first victory of the season before returning as a full-time Cup competitor for JGR in 2023.

Photo by Patrick Sue-Chan for SpeedwayMedia.com

“Just not fast enough to keep up with those guys,” Truex, who managed a smile, said. “We got the restart we needed and got in a decent spot there. Just couldn’t keep up. I was wide open the whole last run there. It’s a shame. It stinks, but just too much damage to have enough speed to do what we needed to do. Hindsight’s always 20/20. We gave away plenty of points throughout the season, but it is what it is.”

Blaney and Truex set their sights on the next NASCAR Cup Series event of the 2022 schedule at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500, which will also commence the 2022 Cup Series Playoffs. The event is scheduled to occur next Sunday, September 4, at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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