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Blaney aims for Daytona 500 win in 2021 season full of potential: ‘We just have to execute’

Before flying down to Daytona International Speedway to begin his sixth full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series, Ryan Blaney enjoyed the last bit of down time at home, sipping on a cup of morning coffee.

The No. 12 Team Penske driver looks to finally land in Victory Lane after finishing second in the Daytona 500 on a pair of occasions so far in his young career. The first came in a runner-up finish to Kurt Busch in 2017 while driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. The second occurred in last year’s memorable ending, this time to Denny Hamlin in the second-closest finish in the race’s history.

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Blaney doesn’t lament the near-wins, but he doesn’t forget the disappointment.

“It’s frustrating at the time when you finish second and you’re like, man, we were so close,” Blaney told NASCAR.com. “ … We’ve had a few chances to win that race, honestly. I feel like in 2018, we had the fastest car there and got caught up in a wreck late at the end of the race. We’ve been close. Losing that thing last year by a couple feet definitely stung.”

Hindsight is always 20/20. Blaney hopes to learn from the decisions he’s made in the past during the final laps that didn’t go according to plan. But when you’re in a 200-mile per hour traffic jam, life comes at you fast while racing to the checkered flag.

“The two races we ran second in I would have done things differently now, obviously looking back on it,” Blaney said. “… It’s hard to make those decisions in the moment. You try to make the best decision you think is right in the moment and sometimes it doesn’t pan out for you. You don’t have time to process these decisions. You just kind of have to make your mind up and do it because things happen so fast on superspeedways.”

While Blaney has been on the wrong side of luck in The Great American Race (if you can even call second-place finishes unlucky), Talladega Superspeedway has been a different story, winning two of the past three races there. In a sport where inches and hundredths of a second determine winning and losing — he won both races at ‘Dega by .007 seconds — you have to be around when it counts the most. For Blaney, he and spotter Josh Williams have a knack for doing just that on the high banks.

“Winning those two Talladega races, we were just in a spot where we were running at the end and running up toward the front where we could make good moves,” Blaney said. “We’re on the fortunate side of winning them by a foot, and then the 500 last year we were on the unfortunate side of losing it by a foot. I think it just goes into fast cars, good communication with your spotter, good strategy to get toward the front and a little bit of luck.”

Winning the Daytona 500 in Blaney’s seventh try on Sunday would kick-start a season full of possibility for the No. 12 squad. It looked as though Blaney was in prime position to win early in Tuesday night’s Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course, but a last-ditch effort on the final lap by 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion and longtime friend Chase Elliott ruined that chance after contact in the frontstretch chicane sent the No. 12 Ford into the outside wall.

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That finish was an extension to the frustrations of the 2020 season that showed an abundance of promise, winning the spring race at Talladega and earning a solid seeding in the playoffs. Untimely misfortunate in the Round of 16 resulted in a premature postseason exit. Despite the early elimination, however, Blaney and team were able to rally back the final five races, earning finishes of seventh or better in that final stretch.

Blaney knows he and the team are Championship 4-caliber. This year, the goal is to stack up wins in the regular season to provide a good points cushion in the playoffs. With momentum from the ending of last year on his side, Blaney is determined to fully prove they can make those goals happen.

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“I think this team has so much potential, we just have to execute,” Blaney said. “Work on things that we really do need to work on. I think this team can genuinely run for a championship. We have the people to do it. It’s just all about getting the wins and finishing out these races the way we should.”

Blaney stopped short of calling the 2021 season a redemption year, but rather a 36-race stretch full of “opportunity.”

“I just want this team to perform like I know we can,” Blaney said. “… Just working on things from last year. You’re hoping you have the same speed in your cars that we did last year. You hope everybody gets better and keeps improving, myself included.

“Those things all add up for sure,” he added. “It takes a village to win these races and go far in the championship. If we work together, I think we can do it.”