NASCAR Playoffs: Larson Blows Up While Blaney Blasts Off

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media after having engine trouble during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 22, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson experiences the media crush after engine troubles eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway was a tumultuous contest, with favorite Kyle Larson, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 Chevy, eliminated from Championship contention, while Ryan Blaney, driver of Wood Brothers #21 Ford, delivering a storybook finish to advance to next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

An engine detonation relegated Larson to the garage on lap 73 of the Hollywood Casino 400, extinguishing his Championship quest.  As one of the leading favorites to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson’s fortunes going up in smoke caused fans on social media to melt down and lose their collective minds.

Conversely, Ryan Blaney started from the rear at Kansas Speedway but drove a stellar race and dodged several bullets to finish 3rd and remain alive in the playoff picture.

Surely, these contrasting challenges encompass the Game 7 drama that NASCAR sought when they introduced this multi-stage playoff elimination format.  No doubt playoff outcomes can be influenced by fortuitous luck or haphazard chance, but mechanical equipment has always been part of the equation in racing success.

Such mechanical misfortune could befall Martin Truex Jr. at the Homestead-Miami final, should he advance that far.  Truex, Sunday’s winner at Kansas and the perennial favorite to win the Championship, has a series-leading seven wins this season, and anything less than a Championship will seem unjust to the fans of the Furniture Row racing team, regarded as the “little team that could”.

Certainly, this Championship format is demanding.  Larson undeniably didn’t have a dazzling 2nd playoff round.  With previous finishes of 10th at Charlotte and 13th at Talladega, Larson had a narrow point cushion to rely on for advancement beyond Kansas.

 Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Conversely, Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing Team are alive in their quest to win this year’s championship. Blaney explained, “I would say this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing with anybody, no matter what car.  They just make it a fun year.  Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you.”

And, naturally, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Racing Chevy, persevered to advance in a less than stellar season for him, showing composure when confronted by desperate unscheduled pit stops that would have derailed a lesser team.  Johnson again revealed the golden horseshoe often attributed to him, spinning out not once but twice, including a critical journey into the infield grass that could have torn up his car and destroyed his quest for a record setting 8th Championship, but didn’t.

The abrupt nature of playoff elimination for those drivers and their fans always will generate an empty and hollow void at the end of each playoff round.  It’s the game we now have in NASCAR, and as each round concludes, the playoff cuts only get stiffer as worthy drivers are eliminated.

Still, the remaining eight contenders provide a perfect balance for the Championship chase.  We have a compelling mix of drivers, with four former champions (Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski), two young guns (Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney), and two experienced vets who have just fallen short of the title chase before and are as hungry as ever (Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin).

We also have manufacturer diversity in the title chase, with three Toyotas, three Fords, and two Chevrolets among the eight remaining contenders, despite the perceived dominance of Toyota during NASCAR’s regular season.

Vegas odds now favor Truex, Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski to make the Ford Championship Weekend in Homestead-Miami.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Truex will likely waltz to the Finals given the playoff point buffer he has already accumulated with seven race wins this season.  And Harvick can surely get the job done at Phoenix, the penultimate race, with 8 previous wins at his home track.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch is just on fire, with raw speed, talent, and conviction all converging at the right time.

Yet, I’m calling an audible on Keselowski, with the anticipation that either Hamlin or Johnson will rip a win at next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.  Johnson and Hamlin are the preeminent active drivers at the oddly-shaped paperclip short track, having netted 9 and 5 wins, respectively, which would guarantee either’s advancement to the Homestead Final.

Then again, that’s just my reasonable conjecture.  In the congruence of man vs. machine, NASCAR’s playoff format requires that teams and drivers bring their best stuff to EVERY race.  Isn’t that why we should be tuning in, for the both the triumph as well as the agony that this playoff system delivers?

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and share your final four contenders. 

NASCAR Ditches “Ricky Bobby”, Welcomes Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

One thing is guaranteed in life. We all will get older and nobody gets out alive. After that obvious, yet morose, pronouncement there is light at the end of the tunnel, no not that light, young racing drivers coming up through the ranks and Ryan Blaney is one of those.

He’s part of the new crop of drivers that is helping NASCAR ditch the “Ricky Bobby” image and it’s a refreshing place for the Daytona group to find itself.

It’s too soon to say he’s a superstar, he isn’t, but he looks as if he will be joining the talent pool of elites along with several of his alumni.

Ryan Blaney is one of a crop of young drivers in NASCAR whose Fathers were regular competitors, in this case Dave Blaney is his Father. Blaney, the Father often had flashes of brilliance, but his son, Ryan, looks to be capable of surpassing his achievements.

It doesn’t hurt that the young Blaney was on Roger Penske’s radar and is now in the Penske stable. Yes, he drives under the Woods Brothers banner, but make no mistake, this is a Penske effort all the way.

The Woods Brothers are the oldest team still actively competing in NASCAR and with a storied history as well. But like most of the older teams, they fell on hard times against competitors the size of Hendrick. Penske intends to change that.

Ryan Blaney is a Penske driver, with a Penske crew, a Penske crew chief in Jeremy Bullins, Penske engineers and cars built by Penske. It’s a Woods Brothers effort similar to Stewart Haas, but totally run by the Captain.

Blaney has shown that he has the talent to adapt quickly, drive with intelligence, admit his mistakes and not repeat them. His performance at Talladega should confirm that. He found himself at the front in the closing laps of one of the most unusual finishes in that race’s history. It remained single file for an excruciating amount of time. No doubt Blaney would have preferred to have it end like the countless films he watched.

Don't let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR's elite drivers.

Don’t let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR’s elite drivers.

Blaney found himself having to depend on Denny Hamlin to make a move in the last few laps and he waited too late. That mistake aside, he’s presented himself as a driver who is more mature than his years.

He’s been racing since he was a child and ran his first Late Model race at age 15. His starts for Tommy Baldwin racing and Brad Keselowski in the truck series put him front and center of the eyes of Tim Cindric and Roger Penske.

He’s running a limited Cup schedule while he’s both being evaluated and sponsorship money is being pursued by Penske.

All outward appearances of his temporary tenure in the Woods Brothers car say that this is a research and development team. Blown motors at Daytona and Texas would indicate that this is the mule team for testing new components.

I would imagine that Blaney relishes this position as at his age learning all of the strange nuances of how these cars handle, what they can take and how much driver input is needed in assessing the components. Valuable information to have when you take that next step up to the varsity team.

Will Penske add a third car? Many believe that he won’t, given the success that he’s having with Keselowski and Logano. But what to do with Blaney?

No one really knows just yet, but he may very well, albeit slowly, bring the Woods Brothers car into a different position than R & D. Ford Motor Company could easily help add that third car to Penske’s stable. Why?

Get out. It’s the Woods Brothers.

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