One of these days, Ryan Blaney will get the finish he deserves.
That day was not Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
Entering the most recent NASCAR Cup Series race, Blaney was the circuit’s points leader. But after getting caught up in Denny Hamlin’s early mistake, Blaney was left with a 37th-place finish, earning just one point and plummeting to sixth in the standings.
Blaney’s start to the season has been nothing short of fantastic in terms of speed. His second-place finish at the season-opening Daytona 500 was the first bright spot, though that was largely overshadowed by Ryan Newman’s heart-stopping tumble coming to the checkered flag.
The team of the No. 12 Ford proved its quickness wasn’t limited to superspeedways over the next three weeks. Blaney led 19 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was moments away from fighting off Alex Bowman for the win if not for a late caution, setting up a pit call by his new crew chief Todd Gordon that relegated Blaney to an 11th-place finish instead.
A week later at Auto Club Speedway in southern California, Blaney led 54 laps and was running second in the closing laps before a tire shredded apart and brought him to pit road, dumping him back to finish 19th.
The one-step-forward-two-steps-back effect reared its head again most recently at Phoenix. Blaney qualified fifth, his best starting effort of the season, and seemed to have yet another competitive car.
He never got to show that though. On a restart on lap 64, Hamlin dove into Turn 3 tucked behind Blaney’s teammate Joey Logano and broke loose. To Hamlin’s right were none other than Blaney and his other Team Penkse teammate Brad Keselowski.
Hamlin and Keselowski continued – Keselowski even came back to lead 83 laps. Blaney’s day was done, suffering damage to severe to continue.
“I thought we were going to roll the top pretty good through three and four there,” Blaney said. “It looks like the 11 (Hamlin) tried to send it in there below the 2 (Keselowsk) and got loose and hit him and then overcorrected and got us.
“We got up in the dirt and we just ran right into the fence. Just an innocent bystander there. It sucks to have it end so early like that and have that happen so early in the race.”
Whether Blaney had a car as good at Phoenix as he had at Vegas and Auto Club remains a mystery. He was running in the top 10 at the time of the incident but hadn’t yet emerged as a threat for the lead.
“We didn’t even have a chance to work on our car,” Blaney said. “We weren’t great the first run but we made a big swing at it and we don’t know how that change was. It stinks when you are taken out like that. We will just go on to Atlanta and see what we can do.”
Despite the lack of results, there is no reason to expect Blaney won’t be able to find victory lane soon. In fact, a win could come as soon as this weekend at Atlanta, where the rough surface is comparable to Auto Club and the track length is the equivalent of Vegas.
The chemistry between Blaney and crew chief Gordon also seems to be an instant hit.
Throughout Blaney’s Cup career, he was paired with Jeremy Bullins. The duo found success, winning three times including his first career triumph at Pocono Raceway in 2017. But three wins in three seasons (the Charlotte road course in 2018 and Talladega Superspeedway in 2019) seemed to pale in comparison to teammates Keselowski and Logano, who netted nine and six victories respectively in the same time span.
That, in part, led team owner Roger Penske to rotate drivers to new crew-chief pairings in 2020, bumping Blaney to Gordon, who previously worked for Logano’s No. 22 car; Logano to Paul Wolfe, who previously worked with Keselowski’s No. 2 Mustang; and Keselowski to Bullins from the No. 12.
Logano has already won two of the season’s four races, so speed is obvious through the team.
Eight months remain of the season. Perhaps Blaney’s early good showings are a blip on the radar.
But speed is hard to fake. And if Blaney has it now, it seems reasonable to expect he’ll shake the bad luck sooner than later and claim a checkered flag.
BLANEY HAS TO CASH IN ON FAST CARS