It took a determined drive in Stage Two of the preliminary Monster Energy Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway to do it, but by winning that segment Ryan Blaney put his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team back in NASCAR’s All-Star race for the first time since 2012.
Blaney qualified second fastest for the Open, the last chance race for drivers not already assured of a berth in the All-Star race. He finished second in the first 20-lap segment then bolted into the lead on the start of the second 20-lapper and held the top spot through the finish to earn a starting spot in the All-Star race.
Once in the main event, Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team were forced to try different strategies to overcome their starting position at the back of the pack.
Crew chief Jeremy Bullins opted to use the team’s single set of softer tires in the opening segment, hoping that would allow Blaney to quickly move up and thereby improve his average finish in the three 20-lap segments and earn a spot in the 10-lap finale.
But the softer tires turned out to be little help as he was boxed in on the outside groove and only managed to move up three positions to 15th.
“We got a few rows on the start and then things got jumbled up and we went back to where we started,” Blaney said. “That was kind of the end of it.”
Back on regular tires for the second segment, he finished 16th. Knowing the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team needed to improve its average finish to advance to the finale, Bullins opted to change just two tires for the third 20-lapper, a call that put Blaney on the outside front row for the restart but also at a disadvantage, grip-wise.
Blaney led briefly but faded to ninth at the finish, still a gain of seven spots from where he likely would have started had the team changed four tires.
“We had to try something to get our average up or try to win a stage and that’s what we tried.”
As it was, he was credited with an 11th-place finish overall for the All-Star race, best among the drivers not advancing to the final round.
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said he was happy just to have made the big show.
“I told all the crew that I was proud of them for getting us into the All-Star race,” Wood said. “By having to race our way in through the Open, we were behind the eight-ball from the start. Ryan and Jeremy and the team threw everything they could at it, but getting from the back to the front was tough.
“It was a huge accomplishment just making the race, and that’s the takeaway from tonight for us.”
Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team return to Charlotte Motor Speedway this week for the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night.