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For years, Ryan Blaney was the lovable sidekick who just couldn't break into a leading role. Good friends with Chase Elliott, he watched as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver matched his off-track success with the 2020 Cup Series title. Last year, Blaney could only watch as Team Penske veteran Joey Logano earned the trophy.

It's taken eight full-time seasons for the 29-year-old to finally get his chance. But after a win Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Blaney's on the doorstep of leveling up.

"Some of the other guys that are around your age," Blaney said after earning his 10th career Cup victory. "You want to be the best of that crop. We haven't, right? We haven't had the successes as like a [Kyle] Larson, Chase [Elliott], those people."

That hasn't come from a lack of trying. Blaney's seven straight playoff appearances are matched by only Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick among active drivers. Four times, he's reached the Round of 8 only to fall short when it mattered most.

Not this time. Blaney beat the men he was racing with heads up at a Martinsville track where he's never won. Even during a surprise 168-lap green-flag run to the finish, at a place where NASCAR's Next Gen car has made it near-impossible to pass, Blaney found a way to breeze through traffic and catch sentimental favorite Aric Almirola for the lead with 23 laps remaining.

For the second week in a row, Hamlin was the odd man out. A power steering failure after hard racing between he and Blaney caused a crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week ago that heavily damaged the No. 11 Toyota team's title chances. Blaney's win, with Hamlin running third, wound up being the knockout blow.

"The 12 [Blaney] car showed up this round, right?" Hamlin admitted. "He deserves to be in that Final 4. The performance they had today was phenomenal. I'm just happy for those guys."

High praise from one of his fiercest competitors shows how much Blaney is respected within the garage. There have been many close calls and battles with adversity, including a winless 2022, for him to reach the precipice of a title run.

"Everyone makes mistakes," Blaney explained. "But do you learn from your mistakes or do you keep screwing up? We learned from 'em."

And now, Blaney has a chance to catch up to his contemporaries with the one piece of hardware that could catapult a career. He'll be an underdog in the battle among himself, Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron at Phoenix, especially with how the Fords have performed this year.

But with a runner-up finish last November, and the momentum of this Martinsville victory? I wouldn't bet against him.

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Green: William Byron. It was an exhausting afternoon for the No. 24 team, spending much of it on the outside of the title race looking in. But an ill-handling car was at its best in the closing laps, a 13th-place finish being just enough to send Byron into his first Championship 4 appearance. A career-high six wins, including Phoenix this spring, and nearly 1,000 laps led will make him tough to beat.

Yellow: Aric Almirola. The retiring driver earned some love with a runner-up finish, leading 66 laps one day after announcing his departure from Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the year. But when you've got just one more race to make your way to the front? Second place truly is the first loser. "Honestly," Almirola said. "I'm just sad… I wanted that one so bad."

Red: Chris Buescher. A dark horse pick for the title entering these playoffs, Buescher's playoff run ended with a resounding thud in the Round of 8. Zero top-five finishes and zero laps led won't get the job done, but it's a good learning experience for RFK Racing as they look to take that final step into title contention come 2024.

Speeding Ticket: Martin Truex Jr. A pit road speeding penalty midway through the race seemed the right way to end Truex's disastrous playoff bid. The 2023 regular-season champion slogged through the playoffs with only one top-10 finish, two DNFs and a handful of disastrous pit problems that led to the replacement of two crew members this week. Two of the last four regular-season champions (Harvick in 2020) have now failed to advance to the final round.


The day's most serious wreck came when Joey Logano played bumper cars with rookie Ty Gibbs near the front of the field. Over a half-dozen cars were involved in a crash that ended the days of Daniel Suarez and JJ Yeley.

It also stirred up hurt feelings between Logano and an old rival in Hamlin (Ty Gibbs' teammate).

Hamlin expanded his comments after the race and vented some additional frustration on how he felt some non-playoff drivers raced.

"Logano knocking out Ty there," Hamlin explained, "Knocking Ty into me. I just felt some more respect could be had there for guys – myself and the 12 (Blaney) are trying to earn a spot in the final four. I thought we deserved a chance to race it amongst ourselves and not have somebody else in there knocking cars around."