There will be a battle within a bigger battle in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
Entering the 200-mile race over Indy’s 2.4-mile road course, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. sit 15th and 16th on the potential Cup Series playoff list. Fourteen drivers have earned playoff spots by winning races; Blaney and Truex are currently tied for points.
With five races remaining in the regular season, it’s possible a new winner (or more than one) could join the list by reaching the victory lane. If not, Blaney, Truex and the drivers just below the cutoff line (currently Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola) will battle it out for points.
Blaney and Truex had disappointing seasons. Blaney has seven top-five finishes, but none in the top two. Truex hasn’t cracked the top three. His only fives are a pair of fourths and fifths.
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Truex, 16th in the standings, won from Blaney last week and enters Sunday’s race 22 points behind the Ford driver. Truex is 83 points ahead of Harvick, the first driver off the playoff roster.
“Obviously that’s not where we want to be,” Truex told NBC Sports Saturday. “We would have loved to have won by now and we feel we should have, but it’s just been one of those seasons where when we have good enough cars to win, we haven’t done all the other things right. We also had bad luck. But that’s part of racing.
“We just have to take the opportunities when we have them, and we haven’t been able to do that. (Sunday) is going to be a tough day but we will fight through it and try to make the best of what we can.”
Truex wasn’t happy with his qualifying. He will start on the 25th. Blaney took part in the final qualifying session on Saturday and will start sixth.
“Our race with Martin — he closed the gap pretty well,” Blaney said. “The easiest thing but the hardest thing is to win and I can stop talking about it, but we try all year. Hopefully we can do that and we won’t have to worry about that, but you just have to realize you’re still competing for points, Martin – and we are. … You don’t want to be on the bubble if there aren’t any new winners and obviously you want to try to win the race, so it’s a balancing act, especially the two road courses that we have.”
Boxing strategy can decide which teams make the playoffs, and sometimes there’s a gamble between racing to win and playing it safe to rack up more points.
“Are you asking? Do you take stage points to try to keep a good distance on (Truex), or if you think your car can win, do you try to move up to the lead?” Blaney said, “So it’s kind of situational, I feel everything. We talk about all these scenarios throughout the week and in our pre-race meetings, but at the end of the day the main focus is to try to win the race and just do everything you can to try and make that happen.
“At the end of the day it’s (team principal Jonathan Hasler’s) decision and what he thinks is best, but he trusts me enough and what I contribute. If I think, “Hey, I don’t know if we can win this race, let’s maybe try to get all the stage points we can.” He trusts me and I trust him. A lot of those discussions are during the race about what’s going on right now, but you make all these plans throughout the week—him, me, and our engineers—about what we think about the baseline, and then you can change the plans from this.”
Truex, who won the 2017 Cup championship, is tired of answering the “When are you going to win?” question.
“We try to win every week,” he said. “And you know, if you can’t win the race, if you can run second, third or fourth, you do that. You always try to maximize your day. That’s exactly what we do. That’s what you have to do in sports as a professional. So yeah, hell, I’d love to win a race. I would love to win (Sunday). And hopefully we can, but worrying about it doesn’t.
“You know, we just have to do our jobs. We need to be smarter about the things we do and the decisions we make. And we must be perfect – perform. So there are no errors and I have to do my job. And we all have to do our jobs as well as we can. And hopefully it’s good enough to win before the playoffs.”