Ryan Blaney is no longer the other Team Penske driver.
In his eighth full season as a NASCAR Cup series driver, Blaney is now a champion. It wasn’t so much about how much time had already come and gone in Blaney’s career, but the organization he drives for and the teammates he’s stacked up against.
Blaney was always the third guy in the Penske lineup behind Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Keselowski was a champion, Logano has two championships. Both drivers are consistent winners in the Cup series, averaging two or three wins a season, with multiple appearances in the Championship 4.
It hasn’t been the same for Blaney. Although the weight may have shifted to Austin Cindric, who replaced Brad Keselowski last season, it wasn’t until 2021 that Blaney won multiple races in a season, and it wasn’t until this year that he finally advanced out of the Round of 8 (in his fifth attempt) in the postseason.
“I think when you go back and he came on board, he came up running in Xfinity for some races, won championships and he was the third driver,” Roger Penske said. “When you look at Brad and you look at Joey, they were very complimentary to him and supported him, and I think the fact Brad came up here on the podium…
“They’re all champions. We try to run our business very flat. You might be No. 3 coming through the door, but on race day or in the business, we’re all the same. I think that’s where he is today. Joey has taken over when Brad moved on as the senior guy. I think you’ve seen that. We’re working with Harrison [Burton] and working with Cindric. I think this is all part of it.
“But I don’t want to have a one-two-three-four (pecking order), quite honestly. I want to have all ones, and I think he’s one of those.”
There is a meme often used on social media that mirrors Blaney’s Cup Series career until the 2023 postseason. It uses an illustration from the webcomic White Ninja, which is holding a long stick to poke at whatever has been photoshopped into the picture with the phrase, “C’mon, do something.”
Blaney was that meme. For years many have been waiting for him to do something championship-worthy and to the caliber of a Penske driver. Blaney fans have waited for him to bust out and start contending for wins on a weekly basis and then translate that into regular trips to victory lane.
Blaney, for a long time was in the shadow of champion teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Motorsport Images
There has always been hype around Blaney and his potential, but the numbers haven’t always reflected the noise. In his first five full seasons (three of which were in-house at Team Penske), he won a single race each season. He didn’t finish higher than seventh in the championship standings.
Not only does Blaney no longer have to face questions about trying to advance out of the Round of 8, but he’s already taken care of claiming a championship. Some of Blaney’s peers have made the final round time and time again and come away empty-handed.
“Yeah, (it’s) out of the way,” he said with a smile. “No, it’s nice to make our first final four; obviously that was the main goal this year, something we haven’t done. To achieve that last week, it’s like, all right, great, that’s awesome, check that one off. It’s just a double whammy that we get to come here and win the championship, as well.
“[I’m] super-proud of everybody. It all happened, gosh, was it Chase [Elliott] and Kyle [Larson] doing the same thing – their first Champ 4, they won the championship? I think they did. It’s nice to come here and be one for one. Hopefully, we can continue to build off this and be able to have more shots here at Phoenix where we can contend as well.”
It won’t be remembered as a dream season for Blaney, but it had a dream ending. He and the No. 12 team peaked at the right time after getting into the semifinals of the playoffs. The last two weeks of the season were all about Blaney, and he performed like a champion at Martinsville Speedway with a clutch win – coming from 13th – and driving with passion and determination at Phoenix Raceway.
Blaney executed behind the wheel. He closed the deal. Over the years, there have been races and opportunities that got away. It was easy to criticize him for appearing to be too nice, or to argue that he simply didn’t get the job done when the wheel was in his hands.
None of that can be said now. And as a Cup Series champion, no more can Blaney be overlooked on track or at Team Penske.
“I don’t really think it matters to me very much,” Blaney said of his place. “(Roger) has always done an amazing job of there’s not like a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 driver, right? But personally, as a driver, when you’re not winning as many races as Brad and Joey when I came into it, you feel like that. The No. 3 driver or No. 2 driver now. That’s just like a personal mindset that drivers get.
“Now I think Joey has two, I have one. So, it’s like, still a half a percent down of him. No, we have a great group over there. Joey has been fantastic to work with and Austin is awesome. Harrison is fantastic, as well.
“I just enjoy driving for amazing people like Team Penske folks and Mr. Penske, Walter [Czarnecki], Bud Denker, Jonathan Gibson, Tim Cindric, Mike Nelson. They’re all amazing to me. It’s just fun to be there. I really couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. They’ve been fantastic with me for over 10 years and hopefully, I get to spend another at least 10 more over there.”