The emergence of Ryan Blaney as a bonafide NASCAR Cup Series championship contender is here, finally. While he has been one of the more consistent performers on track in the top series of NASCAR for years, it had always felt like Blaney lacked that little extra something to get to the Championship 4.
In 2023, that has all changed, and after an emphatic win in the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway to cap off an all-around impressive Round of 8 performance, Blaney will battle for the championship next weekend at Phoenix Raceway against William Byron, Kyle Larson, and Christopher Bell.
“That’s all you can ask for. All you want is a shot at a championship,” Blaney said. “You get your shot when the Playoffs start if you make them. Okay, we’ve got a shot. Then, a real shot is if you get to Phoenix. It’s just nice to have an opportunity to actually race for a championship. Hopefully, we can maximize the weekend. We’ll see. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”
The ascension of Blaney from year-in and year-out Playoff contender to Championship 4 competitor isn’t just a random happening. It came from Blaney taking a hard look in the mirror this past offseason, following a year where he went winless for the first time since his 2016 rookie campaign, narrowly made it into the Playoffs, clawed his way into the Round of 8, and ultimately fell short due to mistakes down the stretch.
“I think everything for him, the next big step if you will in his career kind of started at Phoenix last year when Joey [Logano] was able to win,” Blaney’s crew chief Jonathan Hassler said in his post-race press conference. “If you look back to that race, we were in a good position to win. We had all of the speed that we needed.
“We had mistakes at Vegas and Homestead that took us out of the Championship 4. He realized that if we take those mistakes out, he’s the champion. Gotta clean up the mistakes. And he went to work in the offseason just trying to make sure he was as mentally focused and could mentally last through the race. He’s done a great job. He’s leaps and bounds, a ton of progress this year.”
Saying that Blaney has grown by leaps and bounds, as wild as it seems, is an understatement.
In a year where the Ford teams have been considered a step behind the competition for a good majority of the season, Blaney and his No. 12 Team Penske team showed flashes that they were primed to compete for a title early in the year.
Blaney snagged his first win of the season in the crown jewel Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. With a sixth-place finish the following week at Gateway, Blaney actually took over the point lead for a week.
Sure, it was short-lived, but Blaney reaching the lead in the championship standings was a statement nonetheless. While he cooled off down the Summer stretch, Blaney and Hassler dialed in their stuff for the Playoffs, and after a so-so opening Round of the Playoffs, the pairing came to life.
Blaney won in dramatic fashion at Talladega Superspeedway to secure his place in the Round of 8, and once they got to the Round of 8, Blaney and his team truly found their stride, and they look truly unflappable.
Out to avenge the races that foiled his title hopes in 2022, Blaney fired off a sixth-place effort at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and then he led 53 laps on his path to a runner-up finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In an impressive turning of the tables, Blaney climbed from being the last-place man on the Playoff Grid at the start of the Round of 8 to be 10 points above the cutline heading into the penultimate race of the season.
After scoring 19 Stage points in the opening two Stages of Sunday’s race at Martinsville, a win was far from necessary. But after what happened to him in the Round of 8 a year ago, Blaney was determined to put an exclamation point on things this year.
“Last year, I talked about making a couple of mistakes in this round at Vegas and Miami, it took us out. It kept us from getting to Phoenix,” Blaney stated. “You just all you can do is try to learn from those. Right? Try to be a smarter race car driver. Try to understand the bigger picture. That’s like the biggest thing, or at least it’s the biggest thing I took away from it. Everyone makes mistakes, but do you actually learn from your mistakes or do you keep screwing up? We learned from them.”
Blaney had a car capable of winning for the second consecutive weekend, and he wasn’t going to let the win slip out of his grasp this time around. He finished the job. He collected the grandfather clock. Now, Blaney should be considered the favorite to get it done again next weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
“I don’t think anything has been lucky about it,” Blaney said confidently about his run through the Round of 8 of the Playoffs. “The last three weeks we’ve been running amazing. We were running toward the front in Vegas. We led laps at Homestead, had a good shot to win, and we won today. I don’t think there’s any luck that’s gone into this.”
The 29-year-old driver and his team have all of the momentum on their side. Blaney seems more confident than he’s ever been, and last year, Blaney proved to himself that if he could get to Phoenix Raceway alive in the championship hunt he could compete for the win.
He’s here, and if Martinsville is any indication, he’s going to seal the deal.