In every driver’s career, there’s one person or one moment that stands out as the one “big break” that was the difference between making a career out of racing and not. For Ryan Blaney, it all traces back to 2012.
Blaney grew up on short tracks in the Southeastern United States, running the Championship Auto Racing Series (CARS) and Pro All Star Series (PASS) late model tours a decade ago at age 16. Meanwhile, his dad, Dave Blaney, was running in the NASCAR Cup Series for the underfunded Tommy Baldwin Racing.
The team was owned by crew chief Tommy Baldwin Jr. and never found much success in either the Cup Series or the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Dave Blaney brought the team is first-ever Cup Series top-five finish in 2011, and the Xfinity Series team Baldwin owned had five top-five finishes, with the last coming in 2003.
Ryan Blaney made the decision in 2010 while racing the CARS and PASS Tours that NASCAR was the route he wanted to take, much like his dad, who came from a successful dirt background.
“That was a big year, actually, figuring out what you want to do and how you’re going to try to break into this sport and if you’re going to be successful enough at the short-track level to have a shot at doing it,” Blaney said.
He and his dad began looking at the next steps to take toward NASCAR. In 2011, Blaney ran two K&N Pro Series East races, one K&N Pro Series West race and two ARCA Menards Series races. Blaney led over 250 laps, never finished outside the top 10 and scored one win – the only K&N Pro Series West race he entered, at Phoenix Raceway.
When looking for the next step, Blaney’s father looked toward his car owner Baldwin. Baldwin never ran a full Xfinity Series season and hadn’t entered in more than five races since 2003, typically with drivers who were at the end of their career or who were looking for their big break. With nothing to lose, Baldwin agreed to run Ryan Blaney in six races in 2012.
Blaney entered his first race in the No. 36 at Richmond Raceway that year determined to make the most of the door that had just opened.
Blaney started eighth and finished seventh, giving Baldwin his first top-10 finish in the Xfinity Series since Ted Musgrave finished third at Bristol nine years earlier. He gave the team a second top-10 finish at Bristol that summer, finishing seventh again and giving Baldwin his first season with multiple top-10 finishes since Wally Dallenbach Jr. did so in 2002.
“Tommy is a big part of really helping me out,” Blaney said. “That was a big eye-opener for us. It was like, ‘OK, we can do this.’ That was a great finish for that group.”
The nudge from Baldwin to run his No. 36 car opened the eyes of many in the NASCAR industry to an 18-year-old budding star. Count Team Penske in that group, too. The operation had an opening in its Xfinity Series program for a select number of races the remainder of the year, and before he knew it, Blaney was driving the No. 22 three months later at Iowa Speedway to a 10th-place finish in his first start for Team Penske.
That blossomed into a part-time ride with Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski’s Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in the second half of 2012, when he scored one win at Iowa Speedway and tallied five top-five finishes in nine starts.
As they say, the rest is history, and Blaney has never truly left the Penske organization since. He drove for Brad Keselowski Racing through 2014 while running a limited Xfinity Series schedule for Penske.
In 2015, he ran a partial Cup Series schedule for the iconic Wood Brothers Racing with a technical alliance from Team Penske and scored one top-five and two top-10s. He ran two full seasons for the Wood Brothers in 2016 and 2017, scoring his first career Cup Series win in 2017 at Pocono Raceway by outdueling Kevin Harvick. Blaney climbed to Team Penske in 2018.
Blaney’s drive to success through several part-time seasons and in underfunded race cars is part of his charm, some could say. That charm led Penske to re-sign the now 26-year-old driver of the No. 12 Penske Ford to a long-term contract in March.
The contract extension came after Blaney recorded what he said was his best season in 2019. He scored one win, 11 top-five’s and 18 top-10’s, his career best for the latter two categories.
In 2020, Blaney started the season strong with a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 in his first year with new crew chief Todd Gordon. He backed it up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the following week by almost winning the race had late race pit stops gone his way.
Since NASCAR returned from hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blaney has been one of the top drivers in the Cup Series. He struggled in NASCAR’s first two races back at Darlington Raceway, but one race he admits was driver error. Since then, he has recorded two third-place finishes at Charlotte Motor Speedway and a fourth last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Not to mention, Blaney wrecked while battling teammate Keselowski for the lead at Bristol a week ago. Blaney has led in every race since NASCAR’s return.
“I feel like we’ve had top-five speed for most of the year; it’s just kind of had a couple unfortunate things happen to us,” Blaney said. “These past (few) races I’ve been really proud of everyone’s effort and just having smooth races and kind of putting all the pieces together.
“I think we were close. We’ve just got to find a little bit of speed here and there to go out and really dominate races and be able to go up there and pass the Hendrick cars or the Haas cars or the Gibbs cars and run away with it.”
The future looks bright for the driver from High Point, North Carolina, who sits seventh in the Cup Series points standings. And Blaney knows that all the success he accumulates in the months and years ahead can be traced back to that one “big break.”
“I look at 2012, and Tommy Baldwin was a big part of getting me going, and I’ll always be thankful to him for letting me run that car for a handful of races that year,” Blaney said.
Blaney and the rest of the Cup Series will race in the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Big Machine Records on Sunday, July 5 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race will be televised live on NBC.
BLANEY MAKES MOST OF BIG BREAK IN 2012 TO PROGRESS INTO CUP SERIES TITLE CONTENDER