This past season proved to be a career year for Ryan Blaney in more ways than one. In addition to becoming champion in the NASCAR Cup Series, Blaney closed out two major sweeps to show that even when the moments are tense, he is willing to take a challenge head-on and prevail in the end.
Starting with his first win of the season, it came at one of NASCAR’s most physically demanding races, the Coca-Cola 600. Blaney led 163 laps while holding off Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, who was hounding him in the closing laps. Blaney took the checkered flag and converted Team Penske’s first sweep on Memorial Day Weekend after Josef Newgarden won the Indianapolis 500 the previous day.
“It was definitely good,” said Blaney when reflecting on the year in Phoenix. “Winning the 600 was huge for our organization for multiple reasons. It was big for me after getting out of that slump after not winning for a little bit.”
In the press conference after the Coca-Cola 600, Blaney mentioned wanting to convert the sweep after seeing how Newgarden won the 19th Indy 500 for Roger Penske in epic fashion.
“Watching the Indy 500 yesterday, how that played out, and watching Josef win his first one and watching Mr. Penske win No. 19, that’s really cool to see,” Blaney said. “Especially when that happens, you’re like, well, the pressure is on for us to try to sweep the weekend, especially in two really big races.”
Blaney stepped up to the plate when needed, knocking out a win in one of the sport’s crown-jewel races. Before finding Victory Lane in Charlotte, Blaney went 59 consecutive races without a win but never doubted that he could win again.
“Sometimes you just get in these streaks of things just aren’t going right,” Blaney said. “You feel like you’re doing everything right, maybe your cars aren’t fast enough to win races or you’re making too many mistakes. It can definitely be frustrating.
“I just always try to look forward to the next week and just try to reassure yourself, like you’re here for a reason. If you try to work on these things and try to perfect what you do, that’s all you can do.”
Not only did Blaney gain some confidence back by winning the Coca-Cola 600, but it was also his first win with crew chief Jonathan Hassler, which locked the No. 12 team into the playoffs for the sixth straight year.
Fast forward to the postseason, Blaney found his back against the wall in the Round of 12, 11 points below the elimination line going into the Talladega fall race. Despite that, the No. 12 team escaped with a close margin of victory, finding success at the right time.
Tides continued to turn Blaney’s way in the playoffs as he finally broke through and captured a win at Martinsville Speedway to close out the Round of 8 and advance to his first Championship 4.
In Phoenix, only three Fords were eligible to win a championship in their respective series. Ben Rhodes for ThorSport Racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Cole Custer for Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series both found their way to crowning moments. That put all eyes on Blaney to complete the sweep once again.
After an uneasy qualifying, Blaney had the tall task of winning the championship starting from 15th. There was also the added pressure of winning back-to-back Cup Series titles for Team Penske. Once again, Blaney stepped up when he needed to and outdueled his championship competitors to finish second at Phoenix to claim his first career title.
“This is what you dream of as a kid,” Blaney said. “This is what you strive for. This is what you run 35 races a year for. To get to this moment, have a championship, you have to run a perfect race to get it.
“You have to keep working hard. That’s what I love about this group, is they don’t ever get down on themselves. They just do the work. They just figure it out. Everyone jumped on the opportunity to dig down deep. That’s what they did. Wound up here.”
For team owner Roger Penske, Blaney managed to deliver on two monumental occasions for the organization. Penske capped the year with two motorsport crown-jewel wins and back-to-back Cup Series titles, two things the organization had never done before.