Ryan Blaney got the monkey off of his back and earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory as a Team Penske driver, which could change everything.

In his first race as a full-time driver for Team Penske in the NASCAR Cup Series, Ryan Blaney was dominant. This race was this year’s Daytona 500, and Blaney led 118 laps of this 207-lap race after qualifying in third place as a result of the fact that he won Can-Am Duel #1 at the track three days prior.

The 24-year-old Ohio native came away with a seventh place finish after he was slightly involved in one of the late accidents that took place, but even a solid seventh place finish was nowhere near being representative of the dominance he displayed throughout the race at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) Daytona International Speedway oval in Daytona Beach, Florida.

In fact, because of the stage points that Blaney accumulated in this race, he led the championship standings after this race even after finishing in seventh place and despite the fact that this race was the first race of the season.

Speed has not been Blaney’s problem this season. His average starting position through the season’s first 29 races is 9.7, which is tied for fourth among all Cup Series drivers, and he has led 602 laps this year, which is the fifth highest total among all drivers.

This laps led total is the second highest laps led total among all non-“big three” drivers (everyone but Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.), and it is the highest laps led total among all non-“big three” drivers who have won at least one race this season.

While speed has not been the problem for the driver of the #12 Ford this season, consistency has. Blaney’s lack of consistency is why he entered the 29th race of the season, the Bank of America Roval 400, at the Charlotte Motor Speedway roval with a mediocre average finish of 14.3 and with no victories.

Blaney’s lone career victory heading into this race was his victory in last year’s June race at Pocono Raceway when he was driving for Wood Brothers Racing. While he had the speed to win several races this season, including the April race at Bristol Motor Speedway, of which he led 100 of the first 117 laps after starting in fifth place before he was taken out in a wreck, he was still winless in 2018 heading into the third and final race of the round of 16, the opening round of the playoffs.

Until Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. made contact in the final turn on the final lap of the 110-lap race around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile (3.669-kilometer) Charlotte Motor Speedway roval in Concord, North Carolina, it appeared as though Blaney’s winless streak would continue.

But it didn’t.

Just like that, Blaney’s career Cup Series win total doubled, and he had finally earned his first victory as a Team Penske driver after a very strong regular season that somehow did not result in any.

As a result, the monkey is off of Blaney’s back. Given his speed this season at most of the tracks that the Cup Series has visited, could the inevitable confidence boost he got by winning this race propel him to the Championship 4 with a good chance to win the 2018 championship?

If Blaney can capitalize on his speed and become more consistent, which he has done lately given the fact that his average finish in the last 11 races is 8.73, there is no reason he cannot be. Just look at what happened to the last Team Penske driver when he earned his first win driving for the team.

IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden entered the 2017 season, his first season as a Team Penske driver, with three career IndyCar victories. After earning his first career victory as a Team Penske driver in the season’s third race, he went on to earn three more victories, thus more than doubling his career win total, en route to winning his first career championship.

Could Blaney follow in Newgarden’s tracks? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Could Ryan Blaney be a dark-horse contender to win the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship now that he finally he has finally gotten the monkey off of his back by earning his first victory as a Team Penske driver?

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