After finishing as the worst-performing Team Penske Ford over the last three weeks, Ryan Blaney needed to roll the dice and try his best to turn his luck around heading into Las Vegas.
Serving as one of his stronger tracks on the NASCAR schedule, the Ohio driver was able to score his best finish of 2021 with his first top-five finish of the season in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400.
“I thought it was a pretty solid day all day,” Blaney said post-race. ” We had to start pretty far in the back from our bad finish last week, and was able to make it up to ninth, I think, before the comp caution and got third in the first stage and then like fifth in the second and ended up fifth. I thought we could have run second or third. The 5 was really the fastest one all day long. It didn’t matter where he was he just drove through the field, but, overall, a really good effort by our group. We really needed that after having three pretty bad races to start off the year. It’s nice to kind of finally get a good run and just a no problem day, just having a solid car and working on it throughout the day. I’m really proud of Todd and the whole 12 bunch and nice to get a good finish. Now we can get rolling here.”
While only leading a single lap during the race, Blaney was able to keep his No. 12 Pennzoil Mustang close to the front for a majority of the race. At one point, all three Team Penske Fords were in the top-four to gang up on one of the more dominant teams of Hendrick Motorsports.
The Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a strong track for the Team Penske organization in recent years, scoring five wins in the last 11 races. Brad Keselowski bested the field in 2014, 2016, and 2018 respectively while Joey Logano won the prior two spring races at the 1.5-mile track. Sunday’s race was the ninth consecutive race at the track where a Penske or its affiliate, Wood Brothers Racing, finished in the top-five.
— Joseph Srigley (@joe_srigley) March 8, 2021
Four races into 2021, no Team Penske driver has locked themselves into the playoffs. Blaney admitted that the organization has some work to do still, but Vegas was a step in the right direction.
Obviously, the 5 was really fast today, but I thought we all made good gains, I didn’t think we were that great at Homestead last week,” said Blaney. ” I thought our company struggled a little bit and we put in a lot of work this week to come here and be better, so I thought the performance side on Team Penske was really good, but there’s obviously a long way to go. The 5 was pretty dominant all day, but we’ll keep working. It’s just nice to be close to where you’re not in left field and swinging at things, you’re just trying to tinker on some stuff.”
As for the other two Penske drivers, Keselowski led 27 laps on his way to a second-place finish, and Logano placed ninth while leading seven laps.
A step in the right direction is what the 27-year-old driver needed after his start to the 2021 season.
Blaney finished 30th in the Daytona 500 thanks to a crash, scored a top-15 at the Daytona road course, and then performing out of character in Homestead with a 29th place finish. His top-five finish at Las Vegas elevated driver No. 12 from 24th in the Cup point standings to 15th, and back in playoff contention.
“It’s just been an unfortunate first three races for us, getting torn up in two of them and just not running very good at the road course there,” he admitted. ” It was really nice to have a strong day. It just helps confidence with everybody. It helps confidence with me, the team, everybody. It just helps that out and the points day. It’s way better for a starting position next week, it’s better for points, it’s pit stalls — all that carries over now. It carries over, so all of that, we had a really bad pit stall today just because of how far back we finished at Homestead, in front of the 5 and behind the 6. The 5 was in front of us most of the day and the 6 was on the lead lap most of the day, so we were squeezing in there and out and that’s just the trouble side of it, so it’s nice to hopefully be able to have a good pick and be better than what it was today, but it just helps with confidence for everybody all around.”
The Penske trio will head to the desert in Phoenix, Arizona next for the Instacart 500. Logano is a two-time winner at Phoenix, including the defending spring race winner. Blaney is still seeking his first win at the unique track, where he scored a best of third place, twice in 2019. Keselowski is seeking a bit of redemption after finishing second in the race in the Fall, and just missing his chance at a second NASCAR Cup Series title.