Missing the cut for the Chase for the Sprint Cup can be a mixed blessing, as Ryan Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team proved on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.
With little to lose points-wise, non-Chase teams like Blaney’s are free to gamble on strategies designed to put them in position to win races.
Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team did just that in Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle 400. When the caution flag flew with seven scheduled laps left to run, setting up an overtime run to the checkered flag, crew chief Jeremy Bullins opted to stay on the track on older tires. That decision vaulted Blaney into the lead for what wound up being a two-lap sprint to the checkered flag.
Blaney was able to overcome the disadvantage of older tires on the restart and led the field for a half a lap before eventual winner Martin Truex Jr. and two other drivers with fresh tires were able to pass him.
Even though he wasn’t able to hang on to the lead in the final lap and a half, Blaney wound up with a fourth-place finish, his second fourth in the past four races, the first coming at Michigan International Speedway. It also was his third top-five finish of the season and the first time he’d led a Cup race this year.
“The decision wasn’t difficult at all,” Blaney said of the call to stay on the track on older tires.
“We kind of made that decision before everyone else came, and we had nothing to lose as far as points.”
“I wish a couple more cars stayed out. You never know. Those guys were on me so fast.”
“We gambled and I prefer to do that. I prefer to take a gamble to stay out and try to hold those guys off.”
Blaney didn’t just fall into a position to bid for the win.
He started 22nd after qualifying was rained out but methodically worked his way into the top-10 with about 100 laps to go. Being in seventh place when the final caution flag flew allowed him to assume the lead with five laps remaining when the leaders ahead of him headed to pit road for fresher tires.
His march forward also allowed him to lead on one other occasion for a total of eight laps led.
“We had a really good car all day,” Blaney said. “We started way back in the field and made it up there pretty quickly.”
Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team return to the track next weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the New England 300.