With NASCAR’s new qualifying rules for Open teams not set to go into effect until next week, Ryan Blaney and the crew of his No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion had to sweat it out through two steamy, rainy days at Daytona International Speedway.
But when it was over, Blaney had made his seventh trip of the season to the final round of knock-out qualifying and will line up 12th for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400.
Blaney and his crew chief Jeremy Bullins, spent the early hours of Friday working to post a lap fast enough to make the starting field should qualifying be rained out and the starting field set by practice speeds. Beginning next week, if qualifying is cancelled the line-up will be set by owner points.
The goal of a fast practice lap was accomplished, thanks in large part to some drafting help from Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, his fellow Ford Fusion drivers at Team Penske.
Then, despite the dark clouds around the speedway at qualifying time, the skies cleared and qualifying went on as scheduled. Blaney was 10th fastest in the first round, assuring the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team of a starting spot in the race, with the bonus of getting to run for the pole.
His second-round was slower than the first, and his lap of record at 191.253 miles per hour put him 12th in the line-up for the 400.
“Today is a day we are happy to have behind us,” a relieved Bullins said. “Each week we have to qualify in, which usually isn’t a huge deal, but at speedways there are so many things out it your control. Weather for example could have played a role in things.” “Fortunately due to some great cooperation from the Team Penske cars we ran a fast enough practice lap to ensure a spot in tomorrow’s race if we had needed it.”
Weather didn’t turn out to be an issue, putting the emphasis back on the qualifying session, where the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team showed an increase in performance from the last restrictor-plate race, at Talladega in May.
“We’ll take the improvement and be ready to race tomorrow night,” Bullins said.
Blaney said in his post-qualifying comments that like Bullins he’s happy to be back among the elite 12 qualifiers at a restrictor-plate race.
“It is nice being in the last round [of qualifying],” he said. “We weren’t in it at Talladega, and it is nice to go back, do our homework, and it looks like we got our speedway stuff a bit better.”
”It is a great effort by everyone on the team, and I am looking forward to going racing tomorrow for sure.”
Blaney also said it’s encouraging that five of the fastest 12 qualifiers were driving Ford Fusions, including pole-sitter Greg Biffle.
“We have a lot of Ford representation up there toward the front of the field, so it is going to be a fun night,” he said.
For team co-owner Eddie Wood, even with the happy outcome it was the kind of day that can give him a few more gray hairs.
“It was a really stressful day,” Wood said. “But we accomplished what we needed to, and now we’re headed to Steak ‘n Shake.”
The eatery just down Highway 92 from the speedway has been a popular stop for the Wood Brothers for decades.
The Coke Zero 400 is set to get the green flag just after 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday with TV coverage on NBC.