Ryan Blaney didn’t enter 2021 as a favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series title.
For the last six seasons, however, the third-generation racer has made consistent gains. His breakthrough win at Pocono Raceway in 2017 started a string of at least one victory per year.
And at age 27, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford is having a breakout season with multiple victories for the first time in his career. So what changed?
“I don't think I can really point out anything in particular over the last month and a half, two months that we've been running pretty good,” Blaney said. “Just everything has been kind of clicking and going well. I think a big thing actually, if I can pick it out, is when Brad (Keselowski) announced he was moving on from Penske, I kind of realized I kind of needed to be that leadership role that he was, really give the extra effort to push myself more and just try to get better.
“I think it's been paying off on that side of it, just applying yourself more and just trying to make yourself a better race car driver, a better student of the sport. I think that's kind of helped out. I think that's kind of the only thing. But it goes a long way, that's for sure.”
Keselowski has played a pivotal position as a mentor to Blaney--first, as a team owner when Blaney found early success behind the wheel of the No. 29 F150 in the Camping World Truck Series at Brad Keselowski Racing; second, as teammate over the last eight years at Team Penske, initially in the Xfinity Series and now in Cup.
“I consider Brad a bit of a role model of mine, because he's the one that gave me a chance with his truck team in 2012 which led to driving for Penske, Xfinity, the Wood Brothers, now Cup cars,” Blaney said. “I look up to Brad a lot. He's done so much for me. Honestly, I wouldn't be here without Brad giving me an opportunity back in 2012. It's pretty crazy to think it's back that long ago.”
Blaney could not have asked for a better opportunity than to have worked under the tutelage of Keselowski and Joey Logano, two drivers who have blossomed into perennial title contenders within the Team Penske system.
While crew chief Jeremy Bullins did an admirable job with Blaney during the his foray into Cup, Todd Gordon, who assumed leadership of the No. 12 team at the start of 2020, has won a championship. He and spotter Josh Williams have been integral in teaching Blaney a big-picture philosophy on the race track. The best teams find a way to handle adversity, and Blaney is learning to make the most of the cards he’s dealt.
Now, with a changing of the guard—Keselowski leaving to take a driver/ownership role with Roush Fenway Racing, Austin Cindric graduating into the No. 2 Ford and Harrison Burton joining the Penske satellite Wood Brothers Racing team—Blaney has chosen to step up and pay it forward.
“That role with Brad moving on, Joey and I kind of being the veteran guys I guess you could say over there right now, just more experience than Austin and Harrison on the Cup side, it has to be your role,” Blaney said. “You have to be a leader. Definitely Brad is a leader, Joey. I think it's time for me to step up and be that guy, too.
“Me and Joey really need to be mentors and leaders to Austin and Harrison and make our team strong. Brad does that really well. I've been really excited to kind of be in that role for sure. Hopefully, we can continue to work on that and get better and better. It's been fun to work with Todd. Todd has been a big part of that. Forever thankful for him. It's been a pretty neat ride.”
Gordon has guided Blaney to his best average finishing position of his career--11.8. Until this season, Blaney had never won more than one race, never won consecutive races and never won at Daytona—although he finished second in the 2017 and 2020 Daytona 500s. The No. 12 Ford has scored five top-five finishes in the last six races and Blaney could not have picked a better time to get hot—heading into the Playoffs.
“It's just good momentum,” Blaney said. “It's good for confidence. Not only my self-confidence, but everyone on the team, it's just huge. You can really have good momentum. Momentum is a huge thing in sports especially. What we do. Confidence is big in not only motorsports but sports and life. If you have confidence in yourself, you can achieve something, know what your goal is, go out there and do the best you can and achieve it, that really helps you out.
“That part has been really neat. It's great that we've kind of really got a lot of Playoff points here because that's something that alluded me in my previous Playoff runs, not a lot of Playoff points when it comes to the end of the year. It's been really cool to capitalize on all this stuff. It's what you need, that's for sure.”
Blaney’s best result in the Playoffs was seventh in 2019. He finished ninth last year. With Gordon announcing this will be his last season as a crew chief for Team Penske, Blaney would like to send him off on a high note.
“We're going to celebrate,” Blaney said following his seventh career win late Saturday. “But Monday morning, it's on to Darlington. We have 10 hard weeks ahead of us. We really have to do our jobs and concentrate. I look forward to that challenge.
“Maybe if we win out, win the championship, Todd will stay. I'll see if I can convince him to.”