CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Ryan Blaney began to doubt himself and his ability to compete at NASCAR's top level as he was mired in a 59-race losing streak and all his buddies he'd grown up racing against were thriving in the Cup Series.
There was Chase Elliott, one of his best friends, who won the 2020 Cup title and is NASCAR's five-time reigning most popular driver. Then there was Bubba Wallace, who Blaney grew up racing practically every week, freshly minted with a Michael Jordan-owned team built around him.
And what of William Byron, who only needed half the time to pass Blaney in career wins? Well, he started dating Blaney's sister. Add another star to the inner circle.
"There's been some bumps in the road, for sure. Maybe not being as, like, dominant as you want to be, right?" Blaney said. "Some of the other guys that are around your age who kind of came in at the same time, you want to be the best of that crop. We haven't, right? We haven't had the successes as like a (Kyle) Larson, Chase, those people.
"I try not to let that get to me. Chase and I are great friends. It kind of motivates me, like, 'Man, I want to be that guy, I want to be that guy winning a championship, all these races, I want to be that guy.'"
A win on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway has given Blaney a chance to be that guy.
He'll race for his first Cup title on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, where the highest-finishing driver between Blaney, Byron, Larson and Christopher Bell will be crowned champion. Blaney got there first by snapping his long losing streak with a May win at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to ensure he qualified for the 16-driver playoffs.
Then he scored his second win of the season in the round of 12 of the playoffs at Talladega Superspeedway to earn an automatic berth into the round of eight. Blaney had been to the round of eight three previous times but had never reached NASCAR's final four until this week.
As the last Team Penske driver standing — reigning Cup champion Joey Logano was eliminated after the round of 12 — Blaney felt immense pressure to get a Ford into this Sunday's championship race. He opened with a sixth-place finish at Talladega that was initially disqualified for a failed post-race inspection, only for NASCAR to reverse it the next day when it found its templates were off.
It put Blaney back in the game and he finished second at Homestead-Miami Speedway to control his own championship destiny at Martinsville. He didn't need the victory to lock himself into the finale, but in winning on the Virginia short track, Blaney joined Larson as the only two drivers with multiple playoff wins this season.
He admitted after the Martinsville win how difficult the last few years have been as his peers have thrived.
"I think it motivates me more than anything, just to try to work on the things that you think you can do better. I think that's the biggest thing that's helped me out this year," Blaney said. "It's hard to do. You're picking out your flaws. 'You suck at this, this and this. Let's change things up to make it better.' Sometimes that's hard to kind of admit. You don't ever want to admit your flaws. I think that's been something good that has kind of helped me out for this year."
Of the final four drivers, the 2021 champion Larson is the only one with a Cup title. He's back in the finale for the second time in three years alongside Hendrick teammate Byron, who led the Cup Series this year with six wins to earn his first shot at the title.
Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing is the lone Toyota representative, and Blaney had to hold off Denny Hamlin for the entirety of Sunday's race at Martinsville to ensure Ford had a driver racing for the title.
It was a sigh of relief to Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports. The Ford camp started the playoffs with six drivers in the field but only Blaney still in contention at Martinsville.
Blaney now has two wins in the last five races — has only finished outside the top 10 once in that span — and has back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix. He was second to Logano a year ago in the finale, and second to Byron in the spring.
Rushbrook loves Blaney's chances come Sunday to give Ford a second consecutive Cup title.
"100 percent he's got a chance. Look at the race last year, Logano led most of the race and who was right there on his shoulder the entire race? Blaney," Rushbrook said. "So I believe in our program and the Penske program and Ryan Blaney that he's got a solid chance to win on Sunday. He's going in there with a lot of momentum and optimism."