Ryan Blaney realizes that his performance last season forever nudged higher the expectations of his future as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. He earned his first career win the hard way by beating Kevin Harvick in June at Pocono Raceway and made a deep run in the playoffs, eventually exiting postseason competition after coming up short in the penultimate race. Simultaneously, Blaney blossomed off the track with a vintage style that perfectly meshed with his seat in the famed No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford and as the star of a growing (and often NSFW) weekly podcast routinely lauded by NASCAR marketing types trying to put the sport in front of new, younger fans.
Improving on all of that would have been more than enough for Blaney to focus on in the offseason. Instead, that mix was complicated by Blaney’s long-planned move from the No. 21 to a new third team at Team Penske, the No. 12 Ford. Yet Blaney seems hardly fazed thanks to what he’s learned at WBR — and what pieces will transition with him.
“I think we can bring pretty much a lot of the same culture,” Blaney says. “It’s a lot of the same people, and I don’t think we’ll change the way we kind of do things each weekend. You have to be able to have fun cause it’s what racing was built on — just people and cars going fast.”
Blaney retains Jeremy Bullins as his crew chief this season. Bullins has been Blaney’s lone crew chief in Cup and even worked on Blaney’s XFINITY Series team at Penske.
“To work with somebody in that position for that much of my career, that’s pretty big,” Blaney says. “Plus you get a language and you get to know each other really well.”
Moving to the third Penske team was always the plan for Blaney when he signed a full-time Cup driving contract with the organization before the 2016 season. Making it happen logistically was the only issue, and Penske’s technical relationship with WBR offered a perfect opportunity in 2018. Now in his third full-time season, Blaney says expectations would have risen even without his move to the No. 12, but there is no doubt that there’s some added juice thanks to the transition.
“When we are in with Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano), you might try to compare yourself to them,” Blaney says. “You want to live up to, compete with, them every weekend because they’re your teammates and they have pretty much the same equipment. So I think that changes a little bit, as far as having teammates that you’re kind of competing against every single week that you’re trying to ultimately beat.”
Blaney learned how to handle adversity over the course of last season. He admits that some in-race issues early last season led to frustration. The April race at Texas Motor Speedway stands out — pit strategy while he was leading put him farther back in the running order, and he finished 12th after leading 148 laps.
“You can get frustrated and then things lead to hitting the wall or making things worse,” Blaney says. “But now I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit better just doing the work and driving the race. If something is not looking right, instead of feeling like your back is up against the wall, you kinda turn around and make it a challenge to try to get better.”
Blaney doesn’t have specific goals for this season — “Everything else will take care of itself” if his team just does the best it can, he says — but he showed enough speed last season that multiple race wins and a postseason berth appear inevitable.