By Dustin Albino

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — A series-high seven stage wins, 12 top-10 finishes and 456 laps led wasn’t good enough to get Martin Truex Jr. into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

When Truex and Ryan Blaney showed up to Daytona International Speedway, both were hoping for no shenanigans. In other words, neither wanted a new winner on the 2022 season. But it’s Daytona, a track that thrives off unpredictability.

It took all but 31 laps in Sunday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 for Blaney’s plans to go awry. When race leader Erik Jones got loose, it created havoc directly behind him, and Blaney, who was third on the inside line, got turned into the outside wall.

The damage was significant. Blaney told his team that his steering wheel sat 180 degrees sideways. The toe link was broken. The No. 12 car was battered.

“I tried to get it running straight and assess [my] damage,” Blaney said after the race. “Like, ‘What do I got? How bad is it?‘ After that you go down pit road and go, ‘I cannot believe that happened.’

“We weren‘t even being aggressive.”

Meanwhile, Truex collected six stage points in Stage 1. During the second stage, the No. 19 Toyota ranked second, picking up nine additional points. Through two stages, Truex chopped off 15 of the 25 points that he was behind Blaney for the potential final playoff spot.

The turning point of the race was on the second lap after the final stage began. Truex found himself turned on the backstretch when Tyler Reddick made contact with Michael McDowell, triggering an eight-car pileup. The No. 19 car remained on the lead lap while Blaney was still six laps down after repairs to his car.

“I had no right front fender,” Truex said of his damage. “I have no idea what was going on. Our car was so damaged. The left rear was a parachute, the right front fender was gone.”

On lap 139, both Truex and Blaney avoided the “Big One,” which saw 13 cars wreck on a damp racetrack in Turn 1. Austin Dillon, who was 16th at the time, slithered through the carnage and came out with the lead. Had the race been deemed official, Blaney would be on the outside looking in, 12 points below Truex.

“I fully accepted the fact that if it downpoured at any moment, we‘d be out,” Blaney added of his thoughts during the weather delay. “You‘ve got to accept those things and know that you have no control over it.”

After a 3:19:57 rain delay, both drivers were still in the running to gain points — Blaney a bulk of them. Sitting six laps down, the No. 12 car was able to jump from 29th on the scoring pylon to 15th at the checkered flag. Meanwhile, Truex finished eighth with a racecar that looked like it just completed 500 laps at Martinsville.

Unfortunately for Truex, Austin Dillon won his first race in two years, locking himself into the postseason. And Blaney gained 15 points over the final 21 laps to edge out the No. 19 car by three points.

“We really did a good job — to make up 22 points in one race is a big gain,” Truex said. “Unfortunately, it just wasn‘t enough today. We ran a smart race and were wrong place, wrong time.

“It‘s just frustrating here, we run well and then get wrecked. At the end of the day, we had a somewhat decent finish but it really doesn‘t matter.”

Truex said with Blaney running 15th, he knew where he had to finish in order to be ahead of the No. 12 car. But with damage to the right front fender and left rear quarter panel, he didn’t have enough speed to get to that position.

Blaney was thankful that his No. 12 team made the necessary repairs to keep him going straight.

“I shook all of those guys hands and told them good job and way to stick with it,” he said. “They did a hell of a job fixing that thing; it was destroyed.”

This is the first year since 2014 that Truex has missed the postseason. In the last seven postseasons, he won a championship (2017), made five Championship 4 appearances and finished in the top two in points four times.

Finishing fourth in the regular season standings wasn’t good enough this year.

“It sucks, there‘s no way of sugarcoating it,” Truex said. “You race your ass off all year, try hard and try to do all the things it takes and come up three points short is pretty tough to swallow when I know we could do something in the playoffs.”

Truex has won at five of the 10 tracks that make up the Playoffs.

On the flip side, Blaney is going to enjoy his night. He plans on laying low.

“I‘m going to go open and crack open a beer and relax a little bit because that was a stressful day,” Blaney noted. “It will be nice to relax a little bit.”

With the No. 45 team remaining in the owner’s championship battle and Dillon winning, neither the Nos. 12 or 19 teams will be able to contend for the owner’s title.

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