Ryan Blaney was two turns from winning the season-opening Busch Clash, checkered flag in sight. He ended it backwards after good buddy Chase Elliott spun him out. It was the latest trend in a close but no cigar narrative that's defined Blaney's career. Often compared with Elliott as the sport's two millennial stars, Blaney's fallen behind his friend in every category: wins, championships, even Most Popular Driver awards.
While Elliott caught fire last season, taking his first Cup title, Blaney struggled through a first-round playoff exit. But can Sunday's win at Michigan International Speedway change the narrative?
A late caution led to a surprise opportunity on the inside line, Blaney scooting ahead for the first time all day with eight laps remaining. He used clean air to his advantage, fending off Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson by .077 seconds.
That makes 2021 the first time Blaney's scored multiple wins in a season. He's now the highest-positioned Team Penske driver in the point standings, entering the playoffs with his best shot at reaching the Championship 4.
"That's just something that has been kind of bugging me," Blaney said. "I don't want to be a one-win guy a year. It's cool to get a couple."
Blaney's maturity was on display at Michigan, as it's been during most of a difficult summer for Penske. Despite dropping to 15th at the start, he never gave up on the car or crew chief Todd Gordon. The team was at its best in the closing laps, similar to his other win this season, running down and passing a dominant Larson at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It's a stark contrast to past victories at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively. Those were races where circumstance and luck played more of a role instead of having to grind it out down the stretch.
"I think he's doing a great job of staying engaged," said Gordon on the difference. "It's tough to do when you're in competition, to not let your emotions drive you."
Those emotions over poor adjustments or mistakes led to missed opportunities, races Blaney's dominated only to come up short. He's been top 10 in laps led every year since 2018 only to struggle with consistency and speed over all three stages.
"The mental health side, everyone kind of deals with it differently," Blaney added. "I think the biggest thing that's helped me is don't bottle it in … honestly, in our sport you're going to lose a lot more than you're going to win. That's just the nature of it. You have to really be able to let off some of that steam, be open with people, talk it out. Credit my family and friends for doing that.
"It's really helped me out."
Will it help Blaney get further in the postseason? We'll see. But Sunday was a big step toward the goal.
Green: William Byron -- A last-lap maneuver on the inside came up just short as Byron had to settle for runner-up. Still, a second-place finish, his best since Talladega Superspeedway in April, is a promising sign for a HMS driver who'd fallen behind Larson, Elliott and Alex Bowman in the pecking order.
Yellow: Kevin Harvick -- Harvick, in the midst of a 32-race winless drought, still clinched a postseason bid for a 12th straight year. It's the longest active streak for any Cup driver, but with the struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing this season, don't expect much once the playoffs begin.
Red: Joey Logano -- Back-to-back crashes and a position differential of -61 the last three races for Penske? The 2018 Cup Series champion is stumbling into the postseason, especially compared to Blaney's sudden strength.
Speeding Ticket: Austin Dillon -- Bubble driver Dillon had a car capable of winning at MIS, flashing the most speed his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has shown all season. But he made a crucial mistake after racing Brad Keselowski hard at the end of stage two.
The resulting wreck knocked Dillon out of the race and, most likely, the playoffs. Sure, Brad Keselowski could have given more room, but it's just a mistake you can't make in these circumstances.
"I just hate it," Dillon said afterward. "I don't know why it happened, really."
Tyler Reddick, Dillon's teammate, was in position for a top-10 run of his own late at Michigan. A little extra aggression, though on one of the late restarts proved costly.
The wreck took out Logano, Ryan Newman and Josh Berry, among others while Reddick himself suffered a flat tire on the restart, finishing 29th.