Saturday, September 30, 2023

Review / Preview: Ryan Blaney

By Toby Christie     

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Ryan Blaney has shown signs that he will be a superstar for years to come in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. 2018, Blaney’s first season with Team Penske, was another great leap for the 25-year-old driver who has a way of connecting with the average race fan.

Blaney got off to a solid start for the 2018 campaign at the season-opening Daytona 500. The North Carolina native rolled from the grid in the third position.

Despite a wild race, which featured eight cautions — two of which involved Blaney — the driver was able to avoid major calamity. Blaney would lead a race-high 118 laps, he would win Stage 2 and when the checkered flag was shown after a chaotic overtime finish, Blaney found himself in seventh.

“It was just hard racing,” Blaney said after climbing from his No. 12 Ford Fusion. “You say it all day. I was trying to be aggressive blocking the lead and kind of fell back and got a good run back up towards it. Man, the 11 blocked the 41 and the 41 kind of went high last minute and I was on his left rear and I turned him. I feel bad about that. He kinda changed lanes last minute and I couldn’t react quick enough. It stinks. We led a lot of laps. It just wasn’t meant to be. But it was a good showing. Hopefully we go into Atlanta and have a decent run.”

Blaney, indeed, would follow up his Daytona finish with another decent showing in Atlanta. After starting 26th, the youngster climbed his way to a 12th-place finish.

A week later, the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas would prove to be another stepping stone for Blaney. The race marked the first pole position of the season for the driver of the No. 12 car. Blaney would drive great all race long, and when it was all said and done he would have his first top-five finish of the year after a fifth-place effort.

Three races later, Blaney showed that he was on the verge of breaking through to victory lane as he again led over 100 laps — 145 to be exact — this time at the half-mile paper clip in Martinsville, Virginia. The driver would win Stage 2 and he would go on to bag a podium finish as he went across the finish line in third position.

In all, Blaney would lead 100-or-more laps in four different races throughout the season.

As the circuit approached Summer, Blaney began to face some adversity. Four DNFs (three for crashes and one from a blown motor) over an 11-race stretch made the No. 12 team look in the mirror and see what they were truly made of.

Turns out Blaney, crew chief Jeremy Bullins and the entire No. 12 team were made up of the intangibles that ultimately make a Playoff contender.

In the final eight races before the Playoffs began, Blaney would record four top-10s and he would never finish lower than 15th, securing his place in the post-season.

Blaney would start his championship bid in strong fashion by finishing fifth at Las Vegas. However, a race later (Richmond) Blaney came home 19th.

As Blaney entered the biggest unknown on the schedule — the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway — he found himself in a precarious position, the final transfer spot in the Round of 16.

However, Blaney qualified an impressive ninth and he kept his nose clean all race long. He didn’t look like he had a race-winning car for the majority of the day. But as the race rolled toward the mid-way point, Blaney led 15-consecutive laps.

Blaney would stay near the front for the remainder of the event, and on the final lap he was sitting in third when opportunity came knocking.

Heading into the final set of turns, Jimmie Johnson — who hadn’t won a race in 2018 — had a last gasp shot at passing Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, went for it. When he did, his car suffered wheel-hop which sent the No. 48 spinning out of control. As Johnson spun backwards through the final chicane, he collected Truex’s No. 78 Toyota.

Through the cloud of smoke and carnage came a brightly-colored No. 12 Ford. Blaney breezed past to collect his second-career victory in dramatic fashion.

It’s really cool,” Blaney said of the finish. “It’s a different way than I’ve ever won one before in my life. It’s cool to win the first [race on the Roval].  Your name will be on it for a while, so that is special.

In addition to winning the race, Blaney secured his place in the Round of 12.

Blaney would book-end the Round of 12 with an 11th-place finish at Dover and a seventh-place performance at Kansas. Unfortunately, Blaney struggled to a 29th-place finish at Talladega — the middle race of the three-race elimination round. As a result, Blaney came up one spot shy of advancing to the next round of the Playoffs.

However, the driver would have one more highlight before the season concluded. At Texas in November, he started from the pole and finished runner-up after leading another 40 laps.

Blaney would finish the season 10th in the Championship standings. He racked up one win, eight top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes and three poles. He also led 660 laps. It was Blaney’s career-best in every statistical category except points ranking (he finished ninth in the 2018 standings).

So, what can we expect from Blaney in 2019?

The driver will win again, and most likely multiple times. He should ascend to being one of NASCAR’s brightest stars this year, and he should contend for a championship if everything goes well.

His crew chief Bullins is back again for 2019, as is his sponsorship package. Blaney is an amazing talent and he drives for one of the best teams in the garage.

Blaney showed impeccable speed at short tracks, 1.5-mile speedways and the Roval in 2018. Those would be good spots to watch for him to have success.

Keep your eye on Blaney this year.

Toby Christie
Toby Christie
Toby is the Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Toby is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, he is an award-winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.

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