If Charles Dickens had bought a ticket, a hot dog and a beer and sat up in the grandstands at Talladega Superspeedway, the opening line he may have contemplated for his epic yarn A Tale of Two Cities might have had the man second-guessing. Especially if he had his eyes cast upon the No. 21 car of Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers contingent.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. “Man, that’s a good line,” he may have thought to himself. “I should apply it to that kid who just ran third in stage one and won stage two. And now, damn, he just crashed out of this here race at the very end! He was having the best day and now his day is ruined. That reminds me of a book I’d like to write.” Forgive us for getting carried away…
Blaney did have a good/bad/bittersweet day in Alabama, but even so, he’s slotted in at seventh in the NASCAR Monster Energy Playoffs and with one race remaining until the final eight boil-down, he’s right smack right in the middle of it. One of NASCAR’s true shining young meteors, we spoke to him while he was packing his suitcase for Kansas.
Q: [Team co-owner] Eddie Wood recently said something to the effect of, “Talladega can be your best friend one second, and your worst enemy the next.” Case in point, your 18th-place run after winning a stage there last Sunday…
RYAN BLANEY: Yeah, he’s pretty much right. I thought we had a pretty good race going for two-thirds of that race, and we won the second stage and ran well in the first one and ended up getting in a wreck at the end of the race. That stunk. I thought we had a chance to win that thing and I came out of there looking pretty good, but that’s just part of the unpredictability of the place. Ed said it best – you can love that place, and then in a moment you can hate it. It just didn’t work out for us, but we’re not in the worst spot. We’re nine points above the cut line. We’ve been in worse positions before. Hopefully, we can just stay above it and move on. Talladega was fun. I love the racetrack, and the people around there are a blast.
Q: You moved up four spots in the playoff series points leading into Kansas Speedway, putting you seventh in points with just this Sunday’s 400 miles remaining to finalize the last eight.
RB: Yeah, we’re right in it. We’re not in a bad spot going into Kansas. We’re not in a great spot, but at least we still moved up after Talladega, which is kind of hard to believe since we wrecked. But that’s one of the things about stage racing – you can do well in those and still keep moving up the ladder.
Q: You’ve run really well at Kansas during the past two seasons. Do you like the place?
RB: Yeah, we sat on the pole there the first race there this year and got fourth, and it’s just a place I’ve always enjoyed running. It’s a place that has always kind of suited my driving style, and my team likes it, too. We run well there. It’s just a place I enjoy. The racetrack is really big and fast and smooth, and there is a lot of throttle time. That’s what I like. That’s my driving style. I’ve always had a heavy right foot, and Kansas is the kind of place that compliments that.
Q: When you go back to a place like Kansas (below) where you’ve performed consistently well, is it confidence-inspiring?
RB: Yeah, it definitely gives you confidence, knowing you’re going back to a place where you know you’ve run well before. You go back and look your notes, and they kind of give you an idea of how to set the car up and things like that, and fortunately for me as a driver, it’s a place I look forward to as well. It never hurts, for sure. Whenever you can get your confidence up going to a place like that, it’s always good. And not only from my side, but from the mechanics’ side. They’re always pumped up. It’s been one of our better racetracks over the years, so we hope to keep it that way.
Q: Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix come immediately thereafter. What’s your take on those three tracks? They’re all three radically different form one another.
RB: Yeah, Martinsville is pretty much a home race for me and the Wood Brothers team. I grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is 45 minutes from Martinsville, and Wood Brothers is just down the road, probably 15 minutes. I like that place, and it’s somewhere I always enjoyed going to as a kid. I haven’t had the best runs there, but it’s somewhere I look forward to going to. And Texas, we had a great run there in the first race there this year. We won both stages and didn’t finish great (12th). Phoenix is kind of a toss-up. It’s a really difficult racetrack, and probably one of the most unique ones we go to. I like the next rounds. Hopefully, we can get to it and have a shot at it, and then I’ll tell you how much I like it after that.
Q: I’ve heard you refer to yourself and the team you race for as underdogs. Do you like that role?
RB: Yeah, I’ve heard people call us underdogs and things like that, and that doesn’t really bother me at all. I kind of like being that person. There isn’t a lot of hype around you; you just have to go do your absolute best. When you’re kind of a small team and you kind of overachieve, that says a lot. I like that. I like being the underdog. It makes for a better story, for sure, if you can accomplish big things.
Q: You are moving to Penske for 2018. I’d image you’re thrilled to do it, but then again I know you have a very close relationship with the Wood Brothers. Sometimes experience and togetherness can run deep, huh?
RB: Yeah. It is a little bit bittersweet. It’s something I’ve want to do for a little while – to drive for Roger Penske in the Cup series. And I’ll do that next year. But I love driving for the Wood Brothers. They are great folks and old school racers, and that’s kind of how my family was. My biggest goal right now is to try and get that 100th win for the Wood Brothers.