Fresh off win, Blaney get­ting into ti­tle hunt

Sunday Star - - SPORTS -

DOVER, DEL. (AP) — Ryan Blaney kept the party rolling from his first win this season long enough to stim­u­late busi­ness at his fa­vorite bar. He soaked in the cel­e­bra­tion from his check­ered flag on the roval at Char­lotte. Now he hopes to stamp him­self a con­tender in the next round of NASCAR’s play­offs.

Blaney, one of NASCAR’s blos­som­ing young stars, earned an au­to­matic spot in the sec­ond round when he zipped past Jim­mie John­son and Martin Truex Jr. for the sur­prise win on the speed­way and in­field road course blend.

Blaney had some fun at the ex­pense of a Fox Sports panel that pre­dicted he would fail to ad­vance out of both the first and sec­ond rounds of the three-race play­off rounds. He tweeted a clip of the stu­dio show where pan­elists left him out of the round of eight and wrote, “Sure hope to prove y’all wrong once again.”

“Yeah, to be hon­est with you I had a few to drink that night when I said that,” Blaney said, laugh­ing. “I saw that and it rubbed me the wrong way. I was just mess­ing around.”

The Team Penske driver got the last laugh at Char­lotte. But even he is not con­vinced one win au­to­mat­i­cally made him a ti­tle con­tender along with former se­ries cham­pi­ons Truex, Kyle Busch, Brad Ke­selowski and Kevin Har­vick.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a cham­pi­onship fa­vorite,” he said. “I’d say we’re in the hunt, and hon­estly we’ve been in the hunt all year.”

The chase to­ward the ti­tle con­tin­ues Sun­day at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way. Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way and Kansas Speed­way also make up the races in the sec­ond round.

The last four driv­ers stand­ing af­ter three rounds will race for the best fin­ish at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way on Nov. 18 to be crowned the 2018 NASCAR Mon­ster En­ergy Cup Se­ries cham­pion.

Blaney is still in the mix. Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing holds

four of the 12 spots: Har­vick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola. Team Penske is right be­hind SHR with Blaney, Joey Logano and Ke­selowski. Chase El­liott and Alex Bow­man are in the field for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports. Truex (Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Rac­ing) and Kyle Lar­son (Chip Ganassi Rac­ing) make it 12. Kyle Busch and Har­vick start 1-2 in Sun­day’s race.

There is some ur­gency for the non-Penske driv­ers to win or post a top-10 fin­ish at Dover: Tal­ladega is on deck and Ke­selowski and Logano have com­bined to win five of the last seven races at the su­per­speed­way.

Lar­son crashed out of the first Tal­ladega race and fin­ished 40th — the kind of re­sult that will knock him from con­tention this time around.

Here is a look at the round of 12 as it gets un­der­way at Dover.

PENSKE POWER

The NASCAR season was dom­i­nated early by the Big Three of Har­vick, Truex and Kyle Busch.

Now?

It’s the Team Penske trio of Ke­selowski, Blaney and Logano. Team Penske driv­ers com­bined to win four of the last five Cup races and seem­ingly have a lock on the Tal­ladega check­ered flag. Logano’s only win this season was at Tal­ladega.

“It re­ally does build a lot of mo­men­tum within the race team,” Logano said. “You want to be the driver and the team that brings home the win for the race team, but there are still a lot of good things to see your team­mate win that comes along with that. Ob­vi­ously, the mo­men­tum for them, but the mo­men­tum for ev­ery­body back at the shop. It also mo­ti­vates you, be­cause you want to be the guy that brings home the wins and it proves that your cars can do it.”

Penske, though, hasn’t had a driver win at Dover since Ke­selowski in 2012.

LUCKY LAR­SON

A bit of luck was on Lar­son’s side at the roval.

He was caught up in a late crash that seemed to wreck his odds of ad­vanc­ing in the play­offs. He had to bring his No. 42 Chevro­let down pit road twice un­der cau­tion over the fi­nal six laps and limped to a 25th-place fin­ish. Lar­son caught a break when a last-lap crash al­lowed him to make a pass and earn one play­off point — enough to tie him with Almirola and John­son for 12th. John­son, the seven-time cham­pion, lost the tiebreaker and Almirola and Lar­son were alive.

“Hope­fully, that means some­thing for us and we can take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity we were put in last week and go out there and have a good rest of the play­offs and maybe make it to the Fi­nal Four,” Lar­son said.

Lar­son is win­less but has six run­ner-up fin­ishes this season, in­clud­ing the play­off opener at Las Ve­gas.

He topped the speed chart at prac­tice Fri­day.

FORD FO­CUSED

Led by the Penske trio, Ford has seven driv­ers in the sec­ond round.

“That’s huge and to have that many bul­lets still in the cham­ber right now to go out there and try to win a cham­pi­onship with one of them,” Logano said.

CRYS­TAL BALL

Sports bet­ting is le­gal in Delaware and this week­end fans at the track could bet on the race. They might want to put a few bucks down Sun­day night on the win­ner of the race to win it all.

The Dover play­off win­ner has won the Cup cham­pi­onship four times since 2009, and last year’s win­ner, Kyle Busch, was se­ries run­ner-up.

AP PHOTO

Ryan Blaney signs for fans be­fore prac­tice for the Mon­ster En­ergy Cup se­ries ace Satur­day at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way in Dover, Del.

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