RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are favorites as they battle to position themselves for the NASCAR playoffs, but in a season where there have already been 15 race winners, they are far from being the only contenders.
Blaney is second in points, just 19 points ahead of fourth-placed Truex, but neither has won a race – the virtual automatic ticket to a playoff berth. There are three races left before the 16-driver field is set, starting Sunday afternoon at Richmond Raceway. Two other one-time winners could leave a race winner off the field for the first time in the playoff format.
Other non-winners include 2012 Series champion Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, last weekend’s Michigan runner-up, and 14th-place finisher Erik Jones. After Richmond, the series moves to the Watkins Glen road course and ends the regular season at the superspeedway that is Daytona.
Truex appears to have an advantage at the 0.75-mile Richmond Oval, having won three of the last six races here, but Blaney has led 128 laps in the spring and has two consecutive top-10 finishes at the D-shaped layout .
Truex does not plan to change anything in its approach.
“We race as best we know how. And, you know, I hope you put yourself in a position to win and do all the right things,” he said. “It would be disappointing with the season we’ve had not to get there.”
Blaney also declined to lament the fairness of the playoff format and said he hopes to continue the improvements he has made in his last two races here.
“I was proud of the progress we made here in the spring, the progress we continue to make at this circuit, and I think we’ve benefited from it even more. Hopefully that shows, you know, in the race.
Both Truex and Blaney reached the second qualifying round on Saturday, but Kyle Larson took pole with a lap of 117.177 mph. Truex will start sixth, Blaney 10th.
The race winner most likely to be ousted is Kurt Busch, who will miss his fourth straight race due to a concussion suffered in qualifying at Pocono on July 23. Busch dropped from 14th to 20th while on the sidelines.
The 15 winners include five rookies, and Kevin Harvick said the idea of winning and participating makes race winners exciting, but the idea that Blaney or Truex could be knocked out of the playoffs when they were near the top of the points classification is problematic.
“I think there needs to be more weight on the 26 weeks and the things you do from a fairness and team perspective,” he said,
Harvick ended a 65-race winless drought last week at Michigan.
Kyle Busch still doesn’t have a contract with Joe Gibbs Racing for next season, but the two-time series champion says while his immediate future is up in the air, he has much better control over his long-term plans.
“I wish that didn’t happen again,” Busch said of the contract negotiations. “I’m still six, seven, maybe eight years old. If I play all of this perfectly, (son) Brexton and I will share a truck when he’s 16, when he’s 16 and 17. And then it’s his when he’s 18 and I’m done, I’m out.
Truex (2017) and possibly Kurt Busch (2004) aren’t the only former champions who could miss the playoffs.
Keselowski has struggled since leaving Team Penske after last season to take on an ownership role with Jack Roush and RFK Racing. He’s 28th in points with just three top-10 finishes. His ranking includes a 100-point penalty he incurred in March for modifying a single-source part on the Next Gen car.
There were 16 different winners last season, but only 14 before the start of the playoffs. Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace both had playoff victories. … Larson won 10 times, and the championship, last season. He has only won once this year. … Kyle Busch leads the active drivers with six wins at Richmond. Denny Hamlin has four, Harvick and Truex three each and Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch each have two.
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