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Ryan Blaney has a big opportunity in Sunday’s NASCAR race

NASCAR: Cup Practice and Qualifying
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This is uncharted territory for Ryan Blaney, but in a good way.

Sunday marks the fourth time in his nine-year Cup Series career that Blaney will have reached the penultimate race of the season, the final race of the Round of 8, with a chance to advance into the championship race. Different this time, compared to three others, is that he enters this race above the elimination cutline seeking his first ever championship race berth.

“I think experience is big in this stuff, so you hope to learn from what you’ve done well in the past and you hope to learn from what you haven’t done well in the past,” Ryan Blaney said during a Wednesday media video conference. “Personally, I did not do a good job last year in this round and it kept us out and it was solely on me, so you learn from that in the hopes that you might right in the future and become better for it.”

It’s a slice of humility for Blaney to say that but the math has always worked against him entering the final race of the final three-race round. In that scenario, the chances are greater than not, that he would have been eliminated rather than advance.

On Sunday, he will take the green flag with a 10-point advantage over Tyler Reddick, but Blaney says he doesn’t view this dynamic any differently than his previous Round of 8 finales.

Related: Winners and losers from NASCAR at Homestead as the playoffs take a major twist

Ryan Blaney expects a fight on Sunday

NASCAR: 4EVER 400 presented by Mobil 1
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“It’s nice to be in that spot, above instead of clawing your way in (but) you’re still going to have to fight hard,” Blaney said. “You can’t get relaxed unless you are (Christopher Bell or Kyle Larson, who have already locked in) this weekend.

“We still have a job to do and have to work hard, whether you’re below or above, and need to have a mindset of ‘hey, we still have to go do an amazing job because I know other teams are going to do an amazing job as well.’ We have to be on that level.”

So, Blaney says, he is treating this race as if he is below the cutline, knowing that any team below him winning their way in would most likely eliminate him from the championship race.

Still, the fact that Blaney has even entered this race above the cutline, is almost a shocking development considering just how behind Team Penske was on the whole this spring and summer. Joey Logano, his teammate and defending champion, was eliminated in the first round in part due to the season-long struggles.

Ford came out with a new nose for the 2023 season, and it’s taken Penske longer than RFK Racing to maximize performance out the new component, especially compared to RFK Racing who has shown a lot more racing wining speed with Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski over the summer and early autumn.

It’s not that Blaney and the No. 12 team were bad, because they were quite consistent and even led the standings at one point in July, but just never truly had race winning speed during that stretch.

“It’s no secret that we struggled a little bit in the summer months, not being where we wanted to be, and even before the start of the playoffs we were struggling a little bit trying to find speed,” Blaney said. “We’ve put our head down and have really put together a good eight weeks to put us in this position, especially the last two weeks at Miami and Vegas.”

They’ve been legitimate contenders to win races. In fact, part of the reason Blaney was a little snippy about the battle with Denny Hamlin late in the race on Sunday came down to the conviction that he very well could have won that race and already locked in.

“I was bummed we didn’t win because I thought we had a good shot to win and that’s all you can ask for,” Blaney said. “All you can ask for is trying to put yourselves in a position to try to win the race and being competitive enough to run up front, lead laps and have a shot to win and that’s all you can ask for.

“If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but you have to hold your head high about you tried your best. I thought that was a good shot for us to punch our ticket, but, on the other side, even though we didn’t punch our ticket we did a great job of putting ourselves in a good spot for this weekend, especially for where we entered Homestead.”

NASCAR: South Point 400
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Blaney had dinner with his dad last week, NASCAR veteran and 1995 World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney, and the chance to be a champion was very much part of that conversation.

“That’s all you want is an opportunity to be a champion of your sport,” the younger Blaney said. “That’s with anything. You want to do a good job in whatever you do, whether it’s motorsports, other sports, your job.

“You want to do well and you want to be the best at what you’re doing, whether that’s winning a championship, getting a promotion, running a company, whatever that is you want to do that. That’s why you do it. You’re not just going through the motions. You want to be the best, so that’s the ultimate goal. That’s why everyone races is to win races and win championships.”

Blaney hopes to deliver a championship to his dad for his birthday too.

“That would be pretty special because when I was a kid wanting to get into racing watching dad run it, that’s what you want to be,” he said. “You see all the champions of the sport, Jimmie (Johnson) winning all these championships and see all these great. You want to be that guy, so that’s what you aspire to as a kid and we’re close to doing it. We’ve just got to dig down deep here the next couple of weeks.”

Related: ‘Not a hack move,’ says Denny Hamlin of Ryan Blaney battle

Ryan Blaney says much of what happened between him and Denny Hamlin late in the race on Sunday was ‘overblown.’

Yes, racing for the lead at Homestead, both drivers drove really deep into the corner to try the best the other. Yes, Hamlin broke traction from the bottom and drifted up into Blaney’s lane. Yes, Blaney called Hamlin ‘a d**khead’ in real-time over the radio and then a ‘hack’ after the race when speaking to the media.

Blaney chalked it up to competition in the heat of the moment.

“I feel like that got blown out of proportion, personally,” Blaney said. “It was a half-joke anyway, my post-race comments. It’s not like me, but it’s intense stuff and he and I were racing hard. I probably said stuff on the radio that was just kind of in the moment stuff, but at the end of the day we’re racing hard. Did I feel a little crowded? Yeah, but when you look at it, it’s just two guys running really hard.”

Blaney has been perceived as ‘too much of a nice guy’ and Blaney joked with the media on Wednesday that maybe he just needs to be a little meaner in real-time.

“Hey, you guys have been saying for a while that I’m too nice, and I did say a couple years ago that if I start not being as nice I don’t want to hear about it, so I guess we’re in that spot,” Blaney said with a laugh. “Hey, it’s just words. It doesn’t mean anything and hopefully we move on from it.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.