23 races remain in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season before the start of the playoffs, but three drivers have already secured their spot in the postseason. Those three drivers are not what one may expect this early into the season. They are Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron.
McDowell and Bell failed to make the playoffs last season, while Byron advanced to the 16-driver field after winning the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway.
For pseudo-Team Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto, the pressure for them to find consistent success could hit its peak this season.
24.7 and 32.7.
These are the respective average finishes through three races for Blaney and DiBenedetto. At the moment, it is career lows for the Ford drivers. Sure, they may have had bad luck to start the season. However, the clock has already begun ticking on their window to reach the playoffs.
With the consistency of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano this season, there should be hope that Blaney will turn it around to point his way into the postseason if he doesn’t pick up a win. The real issue for Blaney is the inconsistency and the fact that he has only won one race in each season since 2017. Does it earn him a playoff spot? Yes, but the good results need to be a weekly basis for him.
After his win at Talladega Superspeedway last June, Blaney finished outside the top 10 in nine of the 13 races leading into the postseason. In 2019, he finished outside the top 10 in 14 of the 26 regular-season races.
Now, is it the end of the world for Blaney nation? No, but the unpredictable start to the season only emphasizes the need for him to find better consistency for this season.
With the abundance of road courses before the playoffs and new tracks like Nashville Superspeedway, Blaney will need to focus on running well and securing a win on tracks he’s familiar with.
For Matty D, it’s go time. He was the final driver to reach the postseason in 2020 and with wildcards in McDowell and Bell securing a spot in the postseason, it may take a win for DiBenedetto to reach the playoffs in 2021. He’s put himself in a hole sitting 34th in the standings. His fortunes can turn around Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as he finished second in both 2020 races.
According to NASCAR’s loop data, DiBenedetto has an average running position of 26.452 through three races, while Blaney is slightly higher at 22.902. In terms of quality passes, both drivers sit outside the top 20. When it comes to time spent inside the top 15, DiBenedetto sits at a measly 10.8%, while Blaney is at 26.6%. By comparison, Spire Motorsports driver Corey Lajoie sits in front of both drivers at 27.2%.
As we get a month into the season, the pressure is on for these two to find their footing as quick as possible. Both drivers should feel the need to perform better and win races with a handful of highly-talented young drivers on the rise. Not to mention that a certain Penske driver in a lower series is already a champion.
If these two fail to reach the postseason this year, team owner Roger Penske will find drivers who can for the future.