Michael Jordan, the 23XI Racing co-owner, and a man who knows more than a fair bit on this particular subject, once said: “Champions don’t become champions when they win an event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it.”
And for the newly minted 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion, Ryan Blaney, some of that crucial preparation came from the crushing disappointment he experienced in the late stages of the 2022 playoffs when mistakes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway nixed his shot at the Championship 4 and a chance to run for a title, ultimately won by his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano.
Reflecting on those difficult moments in the waning weeks of last season during his post-race press conference Sunday (Nov. 5), Blaney was candid.
“That was pretty brutal for me, for our whole group, right?” Blaney said. “Whenever you are the one personally making those mistakes, you take it the harshest, right? Everyone on the 12 group supported me really well. We kind of set into, ‘Hey, what do we need to get better? What are the areas we need to get better?’ We did that over the off-season, was able to get here this year. I think we learned a lot from last year from multiple sides.”
And isn’t that true of life?
If you stop to take it all in and analyze rationally where you’ve fallen short, you will indubitably learn many more valuable lessons from your failures than you will your successes. You will understand your limits, shine a light on your blind spots and inadequacies and the reasons why you fell short and from there you can chart a path to future success.
And that notion of a path was a drum beat by Ryan’s dad, Dave, the 17-year, 473-race Cup veteran, throughout the 2023 post-season.
“His whole thing through the playoffs was, I see the path, I can see the path to the championship, I can see it,” Dave Blaney said. “After we won Martinsville, he’s like, ‘It’s lit up now, the path is lit up.'”
As it turned out good old Dave knew exactly what he was talking about.
So, with the goal of becoming a NASCAR Cup Series champion finally accomplished, thoughts turn to what’s next for 29-year-old Blaney. And my belief is he’s exactly the champion our great sport needs.
Let’s start with some basics: No question he’s a fan favorite, you saw that in the fan reaction of the grandstands after he won, and from those lining up to buy his win merchandise from the hauler conveniently situated behind Winner’s Circle.
He’s also from good racing stock. As he noted post-race when talking about the Blaney family legacy: “I mean, just coming from a racing family in general, right? Grandfather, Lou, winning a bunch of championships the Northeast. Dad being the Outlaw champion. Dale winning of the All-Star championship.”
This history and legacy, importantly, can bridge the gap between the old and new school fans which you could argue widened some last Sunday with the retirement of Kevin Harvick.
YRB also has the respect of his peers in the garage, judging by those who came to celebrate with him in Victory Circle. I saw at least four previous champions: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott come to pay their respects.
Simply put, the champion has an important voice in the sport and Blaney, as and when he chooses to use it, will be listened to, of that you can be certain. As the captain himself, Roger Penske, mentioned in the media center after the race: “He’s a key guy in that garage area and will set a lot of standards for other drivers coming up.”
All the above covers the racing side of the equation, but it’s the non-racing stuff that is, in some ways, much more important. Now more than ever, we as consumers have so many choices for the content we want to consume and the platforms we want to consume it from. Promotion of the sport in non-traditional outlets is a vital component of attracting eyeballs, new fans, and the next generation of NASCAR aficionados.
As champion, Blaney has a unique platform to get the good word of NASCAR out there and it was a point he touched on post-race.
“I’m excited to have those opportunities,” Blaney said. “I really look forward to facing them head-on. I feel like if you get the privilege to be a champion of your sport, it is part of your job to promote your sport and do the best you can to be the best champion that you can … I think it’s part of your job to kind of, hey, embrace it, push the sport. You have this awesome platform now to where you’ve done something incredible, use that, promote the sport.”
So, what could that look like?
Certainly, the upcoming Netflix all-access series will help, but to me it looks like Blaney getting out there into spaces not typically reserved for NASCAR drivers in the past 10 to 15 years.
It means getting back to an era when the stars of the sport like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon were household names away from the confines of the racetrack. It means doing the talk show circuit and not just the obvious names either. Getting him some more parts in scripted TV shows, heck, even a minor movie role. Maybe he hosts an educational series for usage in school curriculums or maybe it’s an animated show with YRB as the main character. And why couldn’t he host Saturday Night Live (if they would have him) just as Gordon did in 2001.
In short, all the avenues and opportunities should be opened for him. Blaney is articulate, laid-back and easy going and his vibe could sit well in numerous different locations. And as he said of being the champion, it’s an awesome platform.
In the off-season of 2022, Blaney and the whole Team Penske No. 12 team learned from their mistakes and parlayed those improvements and changes into a championship. As we get back to on-track action, I would expect Blaney to use his newfound position to effect change, to comment on the burning issues and to be a voice and an influence for good.
In the 2023 offseason, YRB has a whole new type of challenge – to use his platform to promote our sport in ways we’ve not seen in recent times, to bring in a new generation of fans. It’s a unique opportunity for the affable wheelman and for those that run the sport to chart a path with the champion that can help build the sport for the future.
When asked in the post-race presser to describe Blaney’s star power and what were his limits, Penske was forthright in his answer: “I think his limits are the sky, to be honest with you.”
And while time will undoubtedly tell, I think that’s so true, and I genuinely believe Ryan Blaney is exactly the champion we need. Should be fun to watch.
About the author
Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.
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