Ryan Blaney goes from a satellite organization to an in-house car at Team Penske this year, and he knows that could mean a little bit of change.
Whether the change comes more in performance or just life outside the car remains to be seen.
Considering the Wood Brothers, Blaney’s former team, got their cars from Penske and Blaney has his crew chief and lead engineer from last year, Blaney feels he should have the natural progression of a driver entering his third year in NASCAR’s Cup series.
Off the track, the 24-year-old already has trimmed his flowing mane and retro mustache to appear more in line with others at the buttoned-up Team Penske. The Wood Brothers tended to run a little more free-spirited than the starch-and-primed Penske folk.
“The reins might have been a little bit looser for the Wood Brothers,” Blaney said. “Even though I was still a Penske employee, now you’re driving for Roger Penske and he has a reputation of being very professional and things like that.
“A few things personally I have to cut out. Not saying I’m not having any fun anymore. But you want to be a little bit more professional and show you drive for Roger Penske. I think that will change just a little bit. But not much.”
Having signed a new deal last year that extends him for three more seasons, Blaney isn’t under incredible pressure to perform right away beyond the normal pressure of a sport in which a driver often is judged by the most recent performance.
Blaney finished 20th in his first full season with the Wood Brothers in 2016 and was an impressive ninth last season after winning at Pocono in June to make the playoffs. That means 2018 could be a breakout season with multiple wins.
“It could be a defining year, for sure,” Blaney said. “The third year, you should be winning at least a couple of races a year in the equipment we’re in. Hopefully we can make that happen. I think it is going to be a big stepping stone.”
Blaney said the biggest challenge for him and his team is being strong weekly instead of occasionally.
“We struggled with consistency last year,” Blaney said. “We had some great runs and fast moments, but we struggled to be consistent in a month. … I’ve made a bunch of mistakes driving it and wrecking. Time kind of cures everything.”
Time and experience help a driver learn what to expect during a race weekend and what to want out of the car, Blaney said.
The next step for him is leading many more laps and going out and dominating races. If he can do that, he’ll earn the consistent top-5s and top-10s he seeks.
“Going into 2016, your hopes were high but your skill level behind the race car and knowledge of the sport were low,” Blaney said. “As you get a little bit more comfortable with everything as far as your team and race cars and what the Cup series is, you approach it a lot differently.
“As you get older and get more time behind the wheel and more experience, you get just better over time in knowing what you need in your race car to go fast and win these races and try to be more methodical about things.”
The one concern about going to Penske could be that Blaney’s team increases the organization’s in-house NASCAR Cup stable from two cars to three. Adding a team hasn’t always been the best thing at Penske. When it added a team for Sam Hornish Jr. in 2010, the IndyCar transfer struggled.
“Team Penske is better equipped now than ever before to have three Cup cars,” said 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who has shared the Penske Cup stable with Joey Logano for five seasons. “Is it perfect? Probably not. There is probably nobody at Team Penske that would deny there won’t always possibly be better ways.
“From a management and culture level there is quite a stark contrast from the three-car team in 2018 to the three-car team in 2010, which was the last time.”
Penske went from three Cup cars to two cars after the 2014 season, which resulted in the alliance with the Wood Brothers to land a spot for Blaney.
“Just bringing back the [No.] 12 car to the Penske group is really special,” Blaney said. “The car [number] hasn’t been around in a long time. I remember growing up watching Ryan Newman drive it and loving that car. Hopefully we can have the success he had in it and more.”