“It’s not if he will win, but when?”
That thought has very likely voyaged through the minds of Ryan Blaney and his fans over the past 59 races. There is no denying the talent of one of NASCAR’s brightest starts, but that didn’t give Blaney immunity to a 59-race winless stretch.
As the laps of this past Monday’s (May 29) Coca-Cola 600 accumulated, so did Blaney’s tally of laps led. After swapping the lead several times in the first two stages, his stay out front began to lengthen in the final two stages. Through it all, everyone was likely waiting for something to go wrong.
Overall, the eighth-year driver led 163 laps, the most he has ever led in a NASCAR Cup Series race. That’s good news, right?
In the past, it has actually been his kryptonite.
Crediting a stat one of my Frontstretch colleagues alluded to after the race, Blaney had been 1-29 when he led more than 35 laps. 0-16 when exceeding 64 laps led, and a glaring 0-11 when leading over 100 laps. In his seven Cup wins prior to the 600 triumph, Blaney had led 164 laps.
Those 11 races have been the focus of Blaney coming up just short. Just take a look at what happened in each instance:
- 2017 Texas (spring) – 148 laps led, finished 12th
- 2018 Daytona 500 – 118 laps led, finished seventh
- 2018 Martinsville (spring) – 145 laps led, finished third
- 2018 Bristol (spring)- 100 laps led, finished 35th
- 2018 Bristol (fall) – 121 laps led, finished seventh
- 2019 Bristol (spring) – 158 laps led, finished fourth
- 2020 Texas (summer) – 150 laps led, finished seventh
- 2021 Martinsville (spring) – 157 laps led, finished 11th
- 2022 Phoenix (spring) – 143 laps led, finished fourth
- 2022 Richmond (spring) – 128 laps led, finished seventh
In many of these cases, issues out of his control such as wrecks or pit road mistakes took him out of contention, earning him the unfortunate nickname, “Bad Luck Blaney.”
But not included in these 11 races are the additional opportunities where Blaney could have cashed in.
Deep dives into the 59-race winless streak alone show several events where the No. 12 should have been sitting in victory lane. Instead, slow pit stops, loose wheels, speeding penalties, crashes, mistakes, and ill-timed cautions have plagued the 29-year-old to the point where it is like a game of bingo to see what will go awry.
“Ryan Blaney is the new Kasey Kahne. Potential unfulfilled. Everybody wants to talk about what he can do, but he never does anything.”
Since those comments, Blaney has been under a microscope in a sense to see if he could step up to the moment. But after a second-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway and a third after restarting on the front row for the final restart at Dover Motor Speedway, he still couldn’t quite close it out.
That circles us back to the present, where we last saw Blaney answer a lot of questions at the Coca-Cola 600 with his first win since August 2021, as well as his first crown jewel victory. It was arguably the most complete race he’s put together, challenging for the lead all day, winning a stage, and ultimately putting the finishing touches on a masterpiece. His pit crew, who has often come under criticism over the past few seasons, put a complete race together by consistently turning stops under 10 seconds.
But despite his superb performance and the emotion of his win, it has been overshadowed by the scuffle between Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin that led to the former’s suspension. What has been overlooked is the fact that this could be the beginning of something special for Blaney.
So the question now is, how far can he go?
With the parity of the Next Gen car, it would seem that Ford has been behind both the Chevrolets and Toyotas this season. Blaney’s win was only the second for the blue oval so far.
However, the Hartford, Ohio-native sits second in the standings, just one point behind Ross Chastain for the regular season points lead. He is tied for the most top 10s with eight and has the second-best average finish among full-time drivers (11.7). That average is on track to be a career-best. And perhaps just as important, Blaney has no DNF’s through 14 races.
What do these numbers show? Consistency.
Blaney is no stranger to consistency, earning 11 or more top fives the past four seasons and 16 or more top 10s the past five. That has led to back-to-back Round of 8 appearances. However, that is where his title runs have fizzled out four times.
For the past three seasons, the No. 12 has arguably been the fastest car out of the Penske bunch. Yet, while Blaney has struggled to close out races, teammate Joey Logano has been the best at capitalizing when it counts. The same holds true for the playoffs, which is why Logano is a two-time champion.
But over halfway through the regular season, Blaney has carried the torch for Penske and Ford. With a win taking the monkey off his back and the Coca-Cola 600 triumph marking off check boxes that had been questioned, just how far can Blaney go?
Two years ago, a certain young driver earned his eighth career Cup win in the Coca-Cola 600. That would be Kyle Larson, who won eight more races that year in a crusade to the title.
Now, there are certainly some differences between the two, but Blaney just earned his eighth career win as well. A driver never forgets his first win, but this one was arguably the biggest for YRB. The same goes for Larson, as it was his first crown jewel win, too, and it opened the floodgates for one of the country’s most dominant drivers.
If Blaney can become a consistent winner, it could hold the same fate, and it holds major weight in two ways. First, it likely propels him to becoming the perennial championship contender many expected. But secondly, it gives NASCAR the opportunity to market one of its biggest stars in a way that could bring star recognition.
It is no secret that NASCAR has lacked the household name that puts them on the map in the sports world as a whole. Gone are the days of Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, the Earnhardts, and Jimmie Johnson. With the parity of the Next Gen car and the carousel of winners each year, there hasn’t been a driver to bring the sport back into the limelight.
Larson certainly has the ability to do so, but I think Blaney is the most intriguing option. He has personality, is popular with the fans, an old-school persona, and an aggressive, yet clean driving style. If he becomes a consistent winner and captures a title in the near future, NASCAR cannot miss the opportunity to crown him as their next superstar.
Ever since this young driver held off Kevin Harvick for his first win in the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 at Pocono Raceway, expectations have been placed beyond the sky for Blaney. He has proven that he can win at the Cup level and consistently challenge.
The Coca-Cola 600 was perhaps the most dangerous Blaney we have seen. Now, can he become a perennial championship favorite and propel the sport into a new level of popularity? The ball is in his court.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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