DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The sour taste of last year’s Daytona 500 had gotten a refresher. Team Penske typically gives a loose rein in letting its team drivers duke it out for victories, but last year’s final-lap crash among teammates and an empty-handed departure left a lasting sting.
Bound not to repeat that outcome 371 days later, Ryan Blaney was reminded before the final restart to take extra care that one of Roger Penske’s cars won The Great American Race. One did, but it was rookie Austin Cindric hoisting the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the organization after Blaney’s last-gasp surge to the outside line was foiled with the checkered flag in sight.
Blaney’s No. 12 Ford swerved and scraped the wall in securing a fourth-place finish. He had waited for the bulk of the final two-lap overtime dash around Daytona International Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval, making his move in the short chute out of Turn 4.
Cindric blocked the high-lane advance, and Blaney wound up crashing across the start-finish line.
“It’s just one of those things. It didn’t work out,” said Blaney, who led 36 of the 201 laps. “We still ended up fourth, but I don’t know another perfect position we could have put ourselves in to win the race. It just didn’t work out.”
Last year at Daytona, Brad Keselowski’s attempted pass on Penske teammate Joey Logano infamously went south on the last lap, sparking a multi-car crash and allowing Michael McDowell to slide through for the victory. That was top of mind in Team Penske’s game plan in the days leading up to this year’s 500, and the subject cropped up again with the race on the line.
“We had a little issue in the Duels (qualifying races) where, same thing — we had two cars in the top four in two races and weren’t able to win,” said No. 12 crew chief Jonathan Hassler. “So we had a lot of discussions this week about how to make sure one of our team cars won, and I talked to Ryan before the last restart and reminded him of everything we talked about and make sure one of our cars won and he did it. I’m proud of him for going after it, but still helping us.”
Blaney was in a similar position, running second on the final lap in the 2020 Daytona 500. Using a crossover move, he tangled with Ryan Newman to trigger a serious crash, one that allowed Denny Hamlin to sneak by for his third Daytona 500 crown.
This year with a teammate in front and a word of caution fresh in his mind, Blaney waited again.
“I wanted to try to win the race for Roger Penske, whether that was me or another car, that’s what I was doing,” Blaney said. “I didn’t want to make a move too early, because that throws a big chance out the window. So yeah, that’s about it.”
Blaney had entered the 500 as one of the favorites. He had won the previous Cup Series race at Daytona last August, and his record of two recent victories at the similar Talladega Superspeedway had backed up his cred as one of the more skillful drivers at this racing discipline.
There was heartache after Blaney was checked and cleared at the infield care center, but a note of commendation for the way the raced from the team’s leadership – from Roger Penske on down. He wound up just short, but Team Penske was not left wanting this year.
“I feel bad that it didn’t work out for him because man, he is such a fantastic teammate,” said Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director. “He’s done such a great job for us. Every speedway race, he’s like the most selfless guy out there for us. I want to see him get this, too, but you know, that’s fair. I think our thing coming in is just absolutely make sure that one of us wins, and he made sure that he didn’t make the move too early, that everybody could pass us and made sure that one of us won.
“And I think that’s what we owe Roger. That’s what we owe our sponsors. That’s what we owe everybody back in the shop making all this happen. You know, at the track, we’ve got to be able to do that. Today, we were able to.”
The selflessness wasn’t lost on Cindric, either.
“I look at Ryan and he’s honestly been the glue to our speedway program if I look back, as far as having two polarizing figures that are both equally good at what they do in different ways,” Cindric said. “I think Ryan has kind of been the guy that’s honestly gotten the short end of the stick sometimes as far as being a great teammate.
“We talked about it as a team on Monday before we left for Daytona, as far as what the rules were going to be there and how to manage that, and I think that stays behind closed doors. But I think to that point, Ryan had a shot to win the race off of Turn 4, and that was his chance to do it, and I knew that’s the opportunity that he wanted to have, and I think the best chance for him to do that is to be second in line. He was in position to be able to do that, but otherwise great team effort and proud of that, and hopefully I can repay the favor.”