Remember the end of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season?
Ryan Blaney won at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway in back-to-back weeks. He was already locked into the playoffs by virtue of a win earlier in the season, but the two consecutive victories — plus a pole to kick off the postseason at Darlington Raceway — seemed poised to launch the No. 12 team on an unprecedented playoff run.
That kind of happened. Blaney posted mostly respectable results, enough to survive for a while, but was eliminated after the Round of 8.
Flash forward two years later, and here’s Blaney in the playoffs, just one win under his belt and fair-to-middlin’ results leading up to them; he didn’t score a single top five between his Coca-Cola 600 win at the end of May and his subsequent victory in the Oct. 1 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. And yet he stayed alive in the playoffs.
As the great North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano said: “Survive and advance.”
That’s exactly what Blaney did, and when the occasion called for it, he rose to meet it and won at Martinsville Speedway — and then carried all that momentum into Phoenix Raceway with a shot at a championship.
In a season where fellow title contender William Byron had won six races, and his teammate Kyle Larson four — first and second-most among all drivers, respectively — Blaney was up against two heavyweights looking to return the Bill France Cup to Hendrick Motorsports after Blaney’s own teammate Joey Logano interrupted their streak a year prior.
Both drivers had won at Phoenix in a Cup car already (Larson to win the 2021 crown and Byron in the 2023 spring race), while the fourth title contender in Christopher Bell had won there in a NASCAR Xfinity Series machine back in 2018. Blaney was the only driver of the four who had never won on the track, period.
And he did. Well, kind of. He beat the rest of his championship competitors, only being beaten by Ross Chastain, who won the race and everyone immediately forgot about it as Blaney crossed the line second to clinch the title.
It was an emotional win. Blaney, deemed one of NASCAR’s next great stars during his rise to the Cup Series, has racing in his blood, from grandfather Lou racing modifieds to dad Dave Blaney‘s longstanding career in stock cars. Dave never won at the premier level, but Ryan did so and managed that by outlasting Kevin Harvick — whose last race, coincidentally, was Ryan’s crowning moment — at Pocono Raceway in 2017.
But things never quite took off the way they seemed to be poised to for Blaney, at least not at first. More than a year passed for him between wins after Pocono, his second coming at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in 2018 when leaders Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. wrecked coming to the checkered; Blaney snuck by to win. Then, in 2019, Blaney began a streak of excelling at superspeedways, winning a fall wreckfest at Talladega Superspeedway and then the spring-turned-summer-by-pandemic Talladega event the following season.
He’d been a factor in numerous plate races prior, particularly among those favored to win the Daytona 500 several years running, but had always fallen back or gotten caught up in crashes (see 2018, specifically, when he led 118 laps but received contact late). Blaney was generally consistent and at times had appeared to be a very momentum-based driver, but never had the win consistency others rising around the same time (like Larson) did.
Starting in 2021, however, Blaney had his best season yet, with three wins and 20 top 10s to his name, both career bests. Winless in 2022, Blaney still topped his top fives mark over the course of a season, and after his title-winning 2023 campaign has now been running at the finish in 33 of 36 races for three consecutive seasons.
This most recent 2023 season was the type of season Blaney needed in terms of excellence at a variety of tracks; no more superspeedway-ace persona. His first win of the year came in the longest, most grueling race the Cup drivers undertake, and then his Martinsville victory showed his ability to excel at the short tracks as well. Blaney had finished second at Phoenix, called a short track by some but not by others, though still just 1 mile in length, in the spring, and followed that up by finishing second on the track and first in the championship.
It’s also wildly beneficial for NASCAR to have such a personable champion in Blaney: the 29-year-old turns 30 on New Year’s Eve, is a huge Star Wars fan, has a number of tattoos and has done everything from drivers-only broadcasts to podcasts to movie roles and cameos in Logan Lucky and The Crew. If Saturday Night Live ever wants to bring another NASCAR personality on to host, Blaney’s absolutely their guy.
It’s also not often Roger Penske achieves a new milestone in his career, and it’d be remiss to not mention that as well. At 86 years old and a Cup owner for more than 50 years, Penske had never had back-to-back championship-winning seasons. Rusty Wallace won 10 races in 1993 and still finished second, then eight races the next year and finished third. Ryan Newman won eight races in 2003 and finished sixth in the standings and Penske never had the full strength the Hendrick juggernaut possessed during the 2000s.
Brad Keselowski emerged as a star, winning a title in just his third season at Penske in 2012, and once Logano joined the team it gave Penske arguably his strongest one-two punch ever as an owner. As a pair, the duo combined for 51 wins during their time at Penske together (including when Blaney and Austin Cindric were brought into the fold), yet the team-up only yielded one championship during those years (Logano in 2018). Logano’s second title came after Keselowski’s departure.
Who finished second to Logano in 2022 and had a similar road map of running inconspicuously throughout the season while surviving, advancing and placing himself in prime position to contend for a championship in 2023?
About the author
Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.
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