Saturday's motors: Blaney, Truex eyeing playoff spot on Sunday at Richmond

Hank Kurz Jr,
Associated Press

Richmond, Va. — Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are the favorites as they battle for position to make NASCAR’s playoffs, but in a season when there have already been 15 race winners, they are far from the lone contenders.

Blaney is second in points, just 19 points ahead of fourth-place Truex, but neither has won a race – the virtual automatic ticket to a spot in the postseason. Three races remain before the 16-driver field is set, starting with Sunday afternoon at Richmond Raceway. Two more unique winners could leave a race winner out of the field for the first time under the playoff format.

Ryan Blaney prepares for practice and qualifying at Richmond Raceway.

Other non-winners include 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, last weekend’s runner-up at Michigan, and 14th-place Erik Jones. After Richmond, the series moves to the road course at Watkins Glen and finishes the regular season at the superspeedway that is Daytona.

Truex appears to have an edge on Richmond’s 0.75-mile oval, having won three of the last six races here, but Blaney led 128 laps in the spring and has two consecutive top-10 finishes on the D-shaped layout.

Truex doesn’t plan to change anything in his approach.

“We go race the best we know how. And, you know, hopefully you put ourselves in a position to win and do all the right things,” he said. “It’d be disappointing with the season we’ve had to not make it.”

Blaney also declined to lament the fairness of the playoff format and said he hopes to continue the improvements he’s 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 racetrack, and I think we’ve built on it even more. Hopefully it shows, you know, in the race.”

Truex and Blaney both reached the second round of qualifying Saturday, but Kyle Larson won the pole with a lap at 117.177 mph. Truex will start sixth, Blaney 10th.

The race winner most in danger of being bumped is Kurt Busch, who will miss his fourth consecutive race because of a concussion sustained in qualifying at Pocono on July 23. Busch has dropped from 14th to 20th while sidelined.

The 15 winners include five first-timers, and Kevin Harvick said the win-and-you’re-in idea makes it exciting for race winners, but the notion that Blaney or Truex could be knocked out of the playoffs while near the top of the point standings is problematic.

“I think there has to be more weight put on all 26 weeks and the things that you do from a fairness to a team standpoint,” he said,

Harvick ended a 65-race winless drought last week at Michigan.

Trucks

Chandler Smith is feeling great in the NASCAR Truck Series playoffs.

Just over a week after he and his wife welcomed a baby, Chandler Smith Jr., the driver took the lead on pit road after the first stage and dominated the rest of the way to win at Richmond Raceway on Saturday night.

“Honey, this is for you. Junior, This is for you as well. I can’t wait to get home to you guys tonight. The blessings just keep stacking up,” Smith said after his third victory of the season.

Smith, who led the final 175 laps, sealed the victory by doing what he did all night, pulling away from John Hunter Nemechek on a restart with 28 laps to go after the lone caution for an on-track incident.

His victory in the second playoff race allowed him to join Grant Enfinger as drivers whose spots in the next round are secured with one more race in the first round. Enfinger won the playoff opened two weeks ago in Indianapolis.

“I’m taking this in and I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it, but I’m going to soak it in,” Smith said. “I like how everything is going now for sure.”

Nemechek finished second, followed by pole-sitter and stage one winner Ty Majeski, Enfinger and Corey Heim.

The caution came after Nick Leitz got in front of Carson Hocevar in Turns 1 and 2, sending Leitz slamming into the wall. Hocevar was about to be passed by Smith and go a lap down, but the yellow flag preserved his lead-lap status.

The yellow flag sent the leaders to pit road for new tires, and once Smith beat Nemechek off pit road, he easily drove away. Majeski was third, followed by Enfinger and Taylor Gray.

Majeski led the last 69 laps of the 70-lap first stage, building a lead of more than five seconds, but he was just third coming off pit road, and once Smith got out front, he pulled away easily on the 0.75-mile oval.

It was a difficult night from the start for defending series champion Ben Rhodes, who started the race just 14 points behind points leader Zane Smith. Rhodes was nearly lapped by Majeski at the end of the first stage, then went a lap down to Chandler Smith with about 10 laps remaining in the second stage.

He finished 18th, two laps down, and was the only one of the 12 playoff contenders to finish outside the top 12.

The series is off until Sept. 9 at Kansas Speedway.