Getty Images

Ryan Blaney remains on track for his fewest top-five finishes (five) in a single NASCAR Cup Series season since he moved to Team Penske in 2018. His teammate, reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, was already a 2023 playoff casualty while Blaney left last week's race in the Round of 12 on life support.

Leave it to Talladega to patch things right up.

The sport's most chaotic race of the year fell right in Blaney's wheelhouse, as he sneaked to the front in the closing laps of the YellaWood 500 alongside fellow Ford driver Kevin Harvick. Blaney eked out a win by the slimmest of margins, 0.012 seconds, to edge out a future Hall of Famer in his final superspeedway race.

"Sometimes you lose them by five feet," Blaney joked about 'Dega, "And sometimes you win them by three or four."

More often than not, Blaney's figured out how to tip those scales in his direction. His three Talladega victories have come by a combined 0.026 seconds over three Daytona 500 winners: Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman. On Sunday, he didn't have the fastest car but positioned himself over a competitive race in which a season-high 24 drivers found their way to the front. 70 lead changes at Talladega became the most since the old tandem drafting package was used way back in 2011.

How does Blaney earn an edge when the rules leave all drivers created equal? The answer appears to be in his mental approach.

"I feel like people have two opinions on speedways: Either they love them or they hate them with a passion," Blaney explained. "I made the decision I'm going to love these places, and I'm going to accept if something bad happens to me here.

"If you get in a wreck that's not your fault, you're going to accept it and not stress out about that. Once you kind of put that in your head of you're just accepting that these things can happen here, now you can focus on trying to run well and win, right? You're not worried about all this stuff for coming here, disliking the track, like, 'Oh, I can't stand being here, the speedway races are dumb.'"

It's a mindset that's put Blaney in an unexpected position to reach the Championship 4. Several times before, he's reached the semifinal round only to fall short with far more successful seasons. 2023 has been a weird one for him and the Penske organization, whose three total wins are the fewest since the team first switched to Ford from Dodge in 2013.

Can momentum work its way through the No. 12 team in time? Two of the three tracks in the next round, Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami Speedway, have similar characteristics to the lone race Blaney dominated this season: May's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

"I think a shot in the arm like this," Blaney said, "It's like, let's go. We're in the Round of 8. We're still in this thing."

Traffic Report

Green: Denny Hamlin. A penalty for speeding on pit road put Hamlin in a weird position most of the race at Talladega: leading the pack but only to wind up on the tail end of the lead lap. A late caution allowed him to make up those 2.66 miles, and the No. 11 Toyota somehow rose all the way to third by race's end to all but guarantee a ticket into the Round of 8.

Yellow: Christopher Bell. Bell suffered through a wreck between fellow playoff drivers at the end of Stage 1, with Kyle Busch turning Ross Chastain right into the front bumper of the No. 20. Typically, a car with that much damage would have lost the draft; Bell hung on for a 14th-place finish to gave him a much-needed 22-point cushion entering the Charlotte Roval this coming weekend.  

Red: 23XI Racing. For two teams on the precipice of playoff elimination, it's astounding how there wasn't a strategy to earn Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick stage points. They earned a total of one between them, losing protection when poor choices inside the draft down the stretch kicked both Toyotas toward the back of the line. Runs of 23rd and 16th, respectively, left both drivers on the outside looking in even with Brad Keselowski crashing out in front of them.

Speeding Ticket: Kevin Harvick's windshield. Thank goodness Harvick didn't win the race or we'd have a whole different column this week. Harvick was disqualified in post-race inspection, relinquishing a runner-up finish due to a windshield that failed to meet specifications.

The team itself had a whole different story, though. In a tweet that has since been deleted, crew chief Rodney Childers maintained it was a simple case of some bolts naturally coming loose.

"There have been times I've got caught doing something I shouldn't have," he wrote. "Today, got DQ'd for the car buffering in the draft all day and some windshield bolts vibrating out. My guys had silicon on the threads and gobbed on the tip. Still came out. Not sure what else we could do."


The day's major wreck involving playoff contenders came when Keselowski bumped Carson Hocevar a little too hard coming through the tri-oval. The resulting spin knocked out four drivers, including Keselowski, and wounded several others the rest of the way.

Was it the veteran at fault here? Or a rookie driver in Hocevar with five career Cup starts under his belt? At least one driver involved blamed Keselowski considering Hocevar's inexperience on these tracks.

"I had the benefit to see the 42 [Hocevar] all over the place," Dillon said. "Like, when he was just by himself… I didn't think the 42 was very good, anyway, to be around. That's what you get when you push and there's no need to push at that point."

"Only one way to learn," Keselowski responded from his perspective. "You get out there and go. Right? This is the part of the race that you push, I gave a pretty light push. I really don't think [Hocevar] did anything wrong. I just don't think his car was handling well enough."