Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon had no clue about their postseason plans until the drama-filled final moments of NASCAR’s regular season.
Now, they have changed their focus from scrambling to make the 16-team playoff field to chasing a Cup Series title when the 10-race postseason starts Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
“We’ll take it as survive-and-advance mode from here on out,” Dillon said with a grin.
Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team have done plenty of that already. Needing nothing short of victory to reach the playoffs, Dillion navigated through a frightening wreck 22 laps from the end at Daytona last Sunday.
Then Dillon waited through a rain delay of more than three hours before returning to the track to close out his first win of the season. There was joy in the pits after the checkered flag and joy in the race shop, which suddenly began prepping for Dillon’s fifth playoff trip the past seven years.
“I’m happy to be in this spot and I think we’re the (under)dog,” said Dillon, the last of the 16 seeds heading to the Southern 500. “Some people are already putting us out, which is just fine with me because it takes pressure off and we’ll go have fun.”
Blaney and his Team Penske also felt pressure last Sunday. They trailed Martin Truex Jr. in the points race for the final playoff spot late during Daytona.
Blaney fell out of contention there after getting caught in a crash late in the first stage, but also made it through the final wreck mostly intact and was racing at the end. That was enough to move him three points ahead of Truex and into the field.
“It’s like, ‘OK, everything is reset, we can really go at them now,’” Blaney said.
Blaney, in the playoffs for a sixth straight season, acknowledged the difficulty of battling Truex along with staying ahead of those racers near him in the point standings the past month.
When the calculations were complete and Blaney was in, he got “a little bit of breath of fresh air, and everything resets.”
Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion, is the top playoff seed and leads the circuit with four wins.
Joey Logano, the second seed and 2017 series champ, won at Darlington in May. First-time playoff driver Ross Chastain is seeded third and defending series champion Kyle Larson starts as the fourth seed.
Blaney is seeded seventh and has five stage wins — tied for the most of any playoff participant. But he has struggled at Darlington. In 11 career Cup Series races, he has one top-10 finish.
Four racers will be eliminated after the opening round of three races, with Kansas and Bristol following Darlington. The Southern 500 winner, if he’s a playoff driver, automatically reaches the second round, which begins at Texas on Sept. 25.
Dillon’s best playoff runs came in 2016 and 2020, when he was made it through the opening round before failing to advance from the round of 12.
He’s had strong runs at Darlington recently, finishing in the top 10 in three of the past four races there.
Dillon won’t have a problem flipping the switch to playoff racing. The season featured 16 winners — Kansas winner Kurt Busch gave up his playoff spot because of his continuing recovery from a concussion after a crash earlier this summer at Pocono — and that meant drivers had to be aggressive every race.
That shouldn’t change during the playoffs.
“We’ll monitor where everybody is running during the race and go from there,” Dillon said. “I believe we should stay on the same (aggressive) strategy path that we’ve been on.”
Blaney has advanced to the round of eight three times, in 2017, 2019 and 2021. Blaney and the Penske crew dusted off their Darlington plan, which Blaney said they would have used whether in the playoffs or not.
He’s grateful the No. 12 team stayed the course and will compete for a championship.
“It is a little, I guess you could say, new life maybe,” Blaney said. “We weren’t dead before, but it was definitely a different mindset.”
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This story was originally published September 2, 2022 5:18 PM.