By Holly Cain | | February 27, 2017 at 03.00 PM

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – All things considered, Ryan Blaney’s runner-up finish in Sunday’s Daytona 500 was essentially an early season victory for the 23-year old driver.

He started from the rear of the field in a backup No. 21 Motorcraft Ford, avoiding several multiple-car crashes and surviving a final-lap push to the front despite concerns about running out of gas.

Any runner-up finisher – especially one in the Daytona 500 – would concede some disappointment on the day, but Blaney still left Daytona Beach deservedly feeling accomplished. And encouraged.

“I thought we had a good car all day to start off,” Blaney said. “We showed that definitely in the first half of the race. Then we got some damage there in one of those big wrecks about middle of the race. Kind of hurt our car a little bit.”

But, Blaney explained, he finally got some well-timed help going forward in the final laps.

“I started kind of running out the gas there into (Turn 3), we started sputtering pretty bad,” Blaney said. “Luckily made it back to the line. It was a good showing for us. It was a good way to start off the year. Stinks to be so close. But I think that’s good momentum for our team, to be good at the beginning of the day, get some damage and be able to rally for a good finish.”

While Blaney’s final lap effort was certainly dramatic, his Wood Brothers Racing team felt all along the car was good enough to challenge for the trophy. And that Blaney was good enough to challenge for the trophy.

Blaney joked that not having his “rookie stripe” — or yellow tape — on the rear of his Ford may have helped encourage the veterans to stick with him.

Of course, driving a super-fast car doesn’t hurt either.

“I thought our car in the Duel race was spectacular and it’s a shame it got torn up, but our backup car was honestly, I felt like, just as good,” Blaney said. “We came from the back really early and were able to drive up through the middle, and our car handled correctly where we could be up the middle and be aggressive when the time was right. We were able to stay up there.”

Blaney’s crew chief Jeremy Bullins said he will arrive in Atlanta later this week feeling very encouraged by the work of the team and his driver.

“Obviously, we showed speed in the 150s [Daytona qualifying race], but we tore that car up,” Bullins said. “It was an easy decision to get this car out. It was built just the same, just as fast. Had a good car all day, got ourselves up front pretty quick, got a little bit of damage a couple of times and had to work on it a little bit, but phenomenal job by Ryan of timing his moves and getting back through there at the end.

“We knew we were close on fuel, got him to save a little bit, which was just enough to get us to the end. Almost where we wanted to be, but really close.”

It is Blaney’s best Daytona finish in four races (three Daytona 500 starts) and places him second in the series points standings heading to Atlanta Motor Speedway – all in all, an impressive mark for him and a fine start to the season.

“Any time you get a good finish anywhere, no matter what track, it always propels you into the next week,” Blaney said. “Maybe it feels a little better when it’s the Daytona 500.

“It doesn’t mean your car is going to be great when you go to Atlanta [next week], doesn’t mean your car is going to be great when you go out West. Until you get nine or 10 in, then you can kind of get a good judge of how your cars are and where your team stacks up.

“No matter where it is, if you get a good finish, it definitely helps your team confidence‑wise for the next week and maybe a couple weeks after that.”

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