Ryan Blaney is headed to the championship race for the first time in his NASCAR Cup Series career, and Team Penske is already drawing strength from his breakthrough.
“I think you used the operative term there — ‘breakthrough,’” said Walt Czarnecki, executive vice president of Team Penske. “Clearly a breakthrough. It’s given him the self-confidence. I looked at something the other day that said he’s been in the final eight four times previously, but he never entered the last elimination race above the cutline. That happened this year.
“That was part of that confidence building. Of course, to win at Martinsville really put him over the top.”
Blaney entered last Sunday’s elimination race 10 points above the cutline. It was his fifth attempt at transferring into the Championship 4 and this time, he had a car fast enough to do so. In the race’s final stint, Blaney drove from 13th place to the race win, which was his first on a short track.
“I had several people comment to me about his demeanor after the race in the interviews, on the stage and the rest,” Czarnecki said. “Someone said, ‘He looks like a champion.’ He really did.”
Blaney seemed to be the third-best Team Penske driver behind teammate Joey Logano and former teammate Brad Keselowski. Not only did they win on a more regular basis, but competed for the championship, too.
Logano is a two-time series champion with five appearances in the title race. Keselowski, the 2012 champion, made two appearances.
This season, Blaney is the winningest Team Penske driver over Logano (one victory) and sophomore Austin Cindric (winless). Blaney is the lone Team Penske driver in the championship race; Cindric did not earn a postseason berth, and Logano was eliminated in the first round.
“He’s paid his dues, and if he wins this championship on Sunday, he will have paid his dues with a flourish,” Czarnecki said of Blaney now having the resume of a championship contender for the organization. “Joey being the senior person, Joey is still a great source of stability, information, assurance to both Austin and Ryan. He’s been a great aid to both of them.
“But I think you’re right — if he wins this championship and even if he doesn’t, the fact that he’s gotten to this point is really important for his future.”