NASCAR: Ryan Blaney inspired by winless but strong run in return to the track

Ryan Blaney has yet to visit victory lane this season, but he and his No. 12 Team Penske Ford team are feeling confident moving forward.

A generation of filmgoers perhaps generalizes the NASCAR experience with “lessons” learned from the 2006 comedy Talladega Night: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. A relative catchphrase of the titular driver of the No. 26 Wonder Bread Chevrolet is “if you ain’t first, you’re last!”, an axiom bestowed upon by him by his father.

Ryan Blaney could perhaps sympathize with the Bobby mantra. He has been one of the hottest drivers on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, having finished no worse than fourth in five of the past six races. The one exception was a 40th-place posting at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Blaney was fighting for the lead of the Supermarket Heroes 500 when his car got sideways, a situation that became disastrous when Ty Dillon was unable to avoid him and hit him across the front bumper.

Fortunately for Blaney, no cougar needs to be placed in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford for him to realize that things could always be worse.

“We could be running 20th every week, so…” Blaney said with a laugh when asked if there’s been any frustration after yet another top-four run, this one being a third-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “You’re proud of the runs that you’ve created and the speed our team’s got.  I’m proud of that.  I mean, yeah, we haven’t won yet with running really good this year.  The way I look at it is, just keep running up towards the front like that, I think those things come.”

NASCAR’s bad luck spirits have done what they could to derail an otherwise strong career for Blaney. Currently in his fifth season of full-time racing (his third in Roger Penske’s No. 12), Blaney has just three wins to his name but has been a relative mainstay at the front. He could easily have several more victories under his belt, but the “Any Given Sunday” concept normally reserved fro football has waddled its way into Blaney’s hauler. He was leading another event at Bristol, the 2018 Food City 500, when a nearby wreck involving lapped traffic gobbled up his Ford. After a runner-up finish at February’s Daytona 500, a tire issue shuffled him the top five to 19th after contending all day. Even virtual endeavors featured calamity, as he wrecked with Kyle Busch during a televised iRacing event at pixelated Texas.

Fortune has occasionally given Blaney a pass, like when he was the beneficiary of Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.’s get-together at the inaugural Charlotte roval event during the 2018 playoffs. But Blaney has showcased plenty of talent to ensure that luck will play a minimal role when it comes to his championship aspirations.

Blaney grew up watching his father Dave succeed on the sprint car World of Outlaws and circuit and later power through a Cup Series career that saw him represent several underfunded rides. Ryan was afforded a better NASCAR start, taking over Penske’s Nationwide Series (now known as Xfinity Series) car and hopping on board Cup Series’ champion (and current teammate) Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series ride. He got to hook up with the long-running No. 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing in 2014, piloting a car that hadn’t finished in the owners’ points’ top 20 in over a decade.

Blaney just missed the mark with a 21st-place finish in his first full-time season and then moved the Woods’ car into ninth, their first top ten standings placement since 1994. A victory awaited at Pocono Raceway, when he passed Kyle Busch’s superteam in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the dying stages of the Pocono 400. His Penske call-up came shortly after in 2018 and playoff appearances have come at the end of each of his No. 12 seasons thus far.

So one could easily excuse Blaney if he’s not going to quarrel with a recent run of winless success that has moved him into the fifth-place slot in the current standings.

“(I’m) just proud of the speed we have, that we’re close, just little things will go a long way when you’re this close. If you have to find 15 spots worth of speed, that’s when it’s troublesome,” he said after the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead. “Just proud of the efforts, not frustrated or anything. Hopefully, we can keep this up and keep getting a little bit better week in, week out.”

Logic should dictate that Blaney should at least somewhat struggle at the onset of the 2020 season, being armed with a new crew chief in Todd Gordon. Team Penske recently shuffled the crew chiefs of its three-car stable. Jeremy Bullins (who followed Blaney from the No. 21 days) went to Keselowski’s No. 2 stall, while the No. 12 gained Todd Gordon, the winning chief behind another teammate, Joey Logano, and his championship campaign in 2018.

Blaney credited Gordon for the No. 12’s speed in the early going.

“I feel like Todd and I have gotten along really well. We’ve communicated great,” he said. “We haven’t worked together that long, (but) to be able to communicate like that kind of in the early part of our relationship has been really nice. I look back at a lot of the finishes, bad finishes we’ve had, of me wrecking in Bristol, tire coming apart at Fontana, the caution coming out in Vegas, we’ve had some really strong runs. That’s something to be proud of.”

“I was looking forward to it, looking forward to working with Todd.  It’s been a nice run we’ve been on here. I hopefully can’t wait to get that first win together here soon. The group deserves it. We’re running good enough to do it. Just got to get a little bit better.”

The circuit now returns to the site of Blaney’s last victory, as the chaos of Talladega Superspeedway appropriate falls on this Sunday, June 21, the first day of summer (3 p.m. ET, Fox). October’s last triumphant visit allowed Blaney to automatically move onto the NASCAR playoffs’ round of eight, as he held off Ryan Newman by .007 seconds to take home the victory. The longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) has been a special place in the Blaney family’s NASCAR endeavors. Dave previously earned third-place finishes at the track in 2007 and 2011, the best postings of his Cup career.

“I grew up there watching dad run there a lot,” Blaney said of Talladega. “Obviously the history of that place is pretty special. To do it in the Playoffs in the fashion we did it, the finish was pretty neat.”

Sunday’s GEICO 500 is set to welcome in 5,000 fans to view the proceedings, as NASCAR becomes the first North American sports league to welcome back spectators.

If Blaney hasn’t been able to lead on the race track, it’s clear that he has taken a leadership role off of it. While one of NASCAR’s most fun-loving personalities, he knows it’s anything but business as usual beyond the asphalt and grandstands. He has emerged on the frontlines to use his platform for an improving world.

The High Point, North Carolina native revealed after a runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 that he attended one of the peaceful demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice in Charlotte. Blaney, however, wanted to make sure that his participation was not the story, but rather encouraged that the message he was there to declare took center stage.

I’m not a person who, if I go to a peaceful protest, I’m not going to like boast it out that I’m there,” he said. “You’re there to learn. You’re there to understand and talk to people.  You’re not there to say, Look, I’m here.  I just want to go there and learn and talk to people and support them as well.”

“I think it’s great. I think a lot of people should check the peaceful protests out. You can learn a lot from people just talking and hearing their stories.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags