Scrolling over the NASCAR leaderboard, you’ll find plenty of familiar faces.
Atop the standings is Martin Truex Jr., who has been the man to beat all season long. Then there’s Brad Keselowski, the former Cup Series champ who won last week at Talladega to secure a spot in the third round of the playoffs. Keep going, and you’ll find a litany of other high-profile names: Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and more.
But in the middle there, sitting at seventh and into the third round of the playoffs if the season ended today, is one relative newcomer to the Cup Series in Ryan Blaney.
This is Blaney’s second full-time season in NASCAR’s top division, but already he’s made a huge improvement on his rookie season. Last year he finished 20th, never winning a race and coming fourth twice. Even if he had a poor showing at Kansas this weekend, he’d still finish better than that, with a playoff appearance to boot.
“I feel like when you get a full year under your belt, at least for me, it kind of slows everything down,” Blaney said Wednesday. “You expect a little bit more and just know a little bit more about the sport and what it takes to run well in these races.”
Of course, Blaney is unlikely to have that bad performance this weekend, not at Kansas. In the first race this season at Kansas Speedway, Blaney won the pole and finished fourth, and winning wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. He has proven an aptitude at this track, and if his history is any indication, he should advance to the third round,
That would place him in the same category as championship contenders, which begs a question: How far can Blaney realistically last this postseason?
“I honestly don’t think it’s out of the question for us to make it to Miami,” Blaney said, referring to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I’m sure anyone will tell you that ... but I think we’ve run well enough at some of these race tracks coming up to try to accomplish that.
“I don’t think that’s out of the question at all.”
Blaney’s optimism is encouraging, but in order to actually solidify himself as a finalist at Homestead, he’s going to need to win another race, something that has eluded him for the most part in his short Cup career. Blaney’s first win came in June at Pocono, and his only other real chance of winning came at Daytona in the season opener.
That doesn’t mean Blaney has no shot. He’s already leading former champions Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, even if he may not think about that.
“I looked up to those guys growing up, and it’s been a blast to race with some of the people you look up to and try to mold yourself after, but they’re just another competitor and someone else you’re trying to beat,” Blaney said. “I just try to go win races and run out front, and that usually takes care of itself.”
For now, Blaney is just focused on running the best he can at Kansas. His history suggests he could do pretty well.
And if he can run as well as he did the last time, he might just be able to race for a championship after all.