A few seconds after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race ended, Ryan Blaney’s crew chief told him something: He had won.
A photo finish lifted Blaney, who led for just four of the 188 laps during a wild race at Talladega Superspeedway, over Kevin Harvick — by just 0.012 seconds.
“Kind of a weird race here. The other ones I’ve won here, we led a lot — led a lot of laps, kind of controlled the race,” Blaney said in a post-race news conference about his third career victory at the superspeedway. “I just appreciate it, did a good job, put in 500 miles of really hard work, and it means a lot.”
Someone had to win. Twenty-four of the 38 drivers in the field led at some point in a race that featured 70 lead changes. Blaney, now fourth in the playoff standings, kept himself toward the front throughout and locked himself into the Round of 8.
Blaney raced through the field during the final laps by getting clear down the backstretch to pass William Byron. That got him alongside Harvick, creating a drag race between the two. Blaney was also worried about keeping himself in front of Byron, so he could force Byron to push him to the win and not allow the No. 24 car to pass.
“I was on the outside there just before the start/finish line. It was hard for me to tell who won,” said Roger Penske, the owner of Blaney car. “Ryan did a great job. ... It was perfect execution, good strategy. And he was very calm, which is key for him.”
Kevin Harvick disqualified
About 90 minutes after the race ended, NASCAR officials announced that Kevin Harvick had been disqualified from the race.
He was in violation of a policy on windshield fasteners, which are required to be secured for the entirety of the event. Every driver from third place to 38th place will move up one position, and Harvick will lose his three stage points from finishing eighth in Stage 1.
Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion who is retiring at the end of this season, was already eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16.
Looking ahead to next weekend’s Charlotte Roval
Blaney and William Byron are the only drivers who have earned spots in the Round of 8.
Denny Hamlin may have been the biggest winner outside of Blaney. Hamlin is now 50 points above the elimination line. He only led for two laps, but those weren’t the only ones he was in front of the pack. A lap down for much of the second stage, he eventually got a free pass after the race’s fourth and final caution during the last stage.
“Everyone has a different agenda,” said Hamlin, who will be listed as the third-place finisher after Harvick’s disqualification. “Why didn’t we pull up to try to win the race? Because I just saw that we just passed some playoff cars on the bottom, and if I go to the top, I have a chance to win, but I also have a chance to run 20th by doing that. I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do to move onto the next round, and that’s why plans are so hard to stick to.
“We just got it back the old fashioned way,” Hamlin added. “But it was fun to drive up there and at least kind of flex a little muscle there in the middle stages, showing that we were fast enough.”
The driver now behind Hamlin in the playoff standings, Christopher Bell, led for only one lap on Sunday and barely cracked the Top 10. But he ran the whole race, finished 15th — still a split-second behind Blaney — and is 22 points above the cut line.
The playoffs are always unpredictable, and this Talladega race was no different. Instead of a wreck-filled race, a caution didn’t even interrupt the race mid-stage until late in the final one.
“You never know what to expect,” said Bubba Wallace, who led for two laps, finished 24th and is now nine points below the cut line. “We were expecting a lot of cars to be crashed out, and that didn’t happen.”
Wallace’s 23XI Racing teammate, Tyler Reddick, finished 17th and also finds himself below the cut line. Just two points out, Reddick likes his chances heading into the Roval. And at the end of the day, with the unpredictable nature of the sport, any race could belong to any driver.
“It’s in our control,” Tyler Reddick said. “That’s all we can ask for.”