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June 17, 2024

Outstanding in his field: Ryan Blaney celebrates Iowa breakthrough with heartfelt family gathering

NEWTON, Iowa – Ryan Blaney remembered how family reunions used to play out, with long car rides during offseason holidays to a frigid Iowa, where his grandparents lived and his mother, Lisa, grew up. This weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series debut at Iowa Speedway prompted another gathering, this time against the backdrop of the sweltering last few days of spring but with all the same feeling of being close to home.

That’s how a crowd of 85 family members and friends wound up as a familiar cheering section perched atop Turn 4 for Sunday’s Iowa Corn 350, all wearing matching gray shirts reading “Ryan Blaney Iowa Crew.” The homecoming had a touching end, with a dominating first victory of the season by the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

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“Move to different states, you don’t go to family events like you did as a kid every year,” Blaney said. “Nice to see them come together and we could celebrate something.”

RELATED: Blaney wins Iowa inaugural | At-track photos

That something was a heartland romp, one where Blaney led 201 of the 350 laps and officially solidified his spot in the Cup Series Playoffs. The night marked an opportune clinch scenario after a series of close brushes with the win column and the next clear step in Blaney’s title defense.

The triumph brought back a flood of memories — some fond, some ominous — and it also coincided with Father’s Day, with his dad, Dave, embracing his son at the flagstand alongside his wife in the family celebration.

“I don’t care what day it is, it’s pretty rewarding,” the elder Blaney said with a laugh. “Glad he got that done for this year, so he could get that first one in and getting in the (playoffs) and all that. They’ve been deserving here for a few races, so glad to see it happen.”

The cluster of gray-shirt faithful found their way to the outskirts of Victory Lane, shimmying through a gap in the fence and ending up on the painted logos in the trioval grass. Blaney said a similar contingent of related rooters gave him a home-court advantage in his previous Iowa triumphs — 12 years ago in the Craftsman Truck Series and some nine years earlier in Xfinity Series competition.

That 2012 victory holds a special place for the Blaneys, with Iowa marking the site of his first NASCAR national-series win and a slice of racing history. Blaney became the youngest driver to win a Truck Series event (a record later broken by 17-year-old Erik Jones and then 16-year-old Cole Custer in successive seasons), and the night elevated him from a promising prospect to a can’t-miss prodigy.

“We were blown away,” Dave Blaney says. “I think it was his third truck race, maybe, and he did a really good job and won it — didn’t luck into it, by any means. And yeah, it confirmed what we thought he could do, and he’s just taken advantage of opportunities his whole time coming up, and that’s what’s got him where he’s at.”

Ryan Blaney celebrates at Iowa Speedway in 2012
Ryan Blaney celebrates at Iowa Speedway in 2012. Sean Gardner | Getty Images

The not-so-fond flashbacks stemmed from Blaney’s near-misses earlier this season. In the second race of the year, Blaney was just 0.003 seconds and mere inches short in Daniel Suárez’s nail-biting victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Just two weeks ago, Blaney was poised to celebrate a virtually guaranteed win at Gateway, where the gas tank on his No. 12 Mustang sputtered dry with one lap left.

The sense of foreboding seemed to linger as the laps clicked off Sunday, even as Blaney held the lead over eventual runner-up William Byron and even as crew chief Jonathan Hassler offered his late-race assurance that his fuel level was more than adequate.

“Yes, yes. Déjà vu, for sure,” Blaney said with a grin. “Yeah, I mean, that did kind of go through my head, right? Normally, in my mind, it’s get to the white (flag). Now it’s like, I don’t care about getting to the white, let’s just get to the checkered — kind of normal thoughts. The pain of two weeks ago, it always pops up in your head. I try to forget about it and just focus on the gap we had, try to keep it, all that. But, yeah, I had some thoughts of that. Luckily, tonight, it went smoothly.”

Hassler had his own uncomfortable flashbacks. As this year’s winless drought stretched toward summertime, the No. 12 crew chief felt shades of 2022, his first full year atop a Cup Series pit box. Blaney went without a win in that campaign, and his march toward a playoff berth went down to the wire in a nerve-rattling contest with Martin Truex Jr.

The thoughts of reliving that suspenseful stretch were daunting.

“Yeah, it’s definitely not what we wanted,” Hassler said. “Obviously you want to win every week, but we just continue to focus, regardless of what happens, try to learn from it, be better the next week. I think with that mentality, we continue to put ourselves in position.”

MORE: Cup Series standings | All of Ryan Blaney’s Cup wins

One vested observer who wasn’t particularly worried was the elder Blaney, who says he’s noticed an unflappable nature about his son in the time since he clinched his first Cup Series championship last November.

“He’s fine. After last year, his whole demeanor has changed, and he’s more patient and calm,” Dave Blaney said. “Yeah, he’s not going to let it get him. Even the Gateway thing you know, I think they took out of it that they had a car to win, so that was that was a good thing, which they haven’t had a lot this year. But it looks like things are turning around a little bit. So nah, he’s good, the team’s good. They’ll just get rolling here.”

The younger Blaney added an uncharacteristic flourish to his celebration, smoking up the Iowa frontstretch with a powerful burnout. He also broke with his usual post-race routine last fall, egged on by a raucous crowd at Talladega, where he explained the backstory to his burnout aversion — a lesson inspired by a talking-to from NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Inman earlier in his career.

Sunday night, after making a clean career sweep of all three NASCAR national series at Iowa in front of a partisan crowd, Blaney couldn’t resist.

“Home track. I got to. Means a lot,” Blaney said. “I mean, it’s cool to win in Truck here, Xfinity, now Cup. Gosh, I’m worn out. Driving hard. I figured I deserved a burnout. Hopefully, Dale Inman isn’t too mad at me.”

No one in Blaney’s community of gray-shirt-wearing supporters seemed to mind, savoring a reunion that’s sure to make the family’s all-time photo album.

“We’ve got a lot of people here tonight cheering us on,” Blaney said. “They willed us to that one.”