CONCORD, N.C.—Ryan Blaney was among the millions of fans mourning Kobe Bryant on Monday.

Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter crash on Sunday near Calabasas, California.

Blaney was fortunate to meet the five-time NBA champion and 18-time All-Star shooting guard in 2018. The fellow BodyArmor athletes shared a dinner during a convention in Las Vegas—and it was an evening he won’t soon forget.

“That was pretty tough to hear, not only him, but his daughter and the other families involved,” Blaney said during a Charlotte Motor Speedway press conference on Monday. “That was shocking. I didn’t want to believe it was real at first. Then it started producing more and more news.

“I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2018 at a dinner and we talked for 20 minutes. I gave him a firesuit from Indianapolis that year, and he was pretty excited about that. Just to be able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes—that didn’t know anything about racing—but wanted to learn everything about it in those 20 minutes.

“Just the way he asked questions and was so interested in it, to me, I could see where they call it that, ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.”

The Mamba Mentality: How I Play was penned by Bryant in 2018. Bryant described ‘Mamba Mentality” as “to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself.” After the meeting, Bryant sent Blaney an autographed copy of the book—which the driver treasures.

“That was the coolest moment,” Blaney said. “I don’t get starstruck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong—the questions he knew nothing about. That was just the atmosphere.

“But he was just an amazing—not only basketball player but what he did after basketball and what he did outside of the sport was pretty incredible. I didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed (in NASCAR). He wanted to learn everything about it. He asked really good questions. It wasn’t like the bathroom question. It wasn’t like, ‘Do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff. It shows what an amazing, intellectual person he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it. It was a shame we never got him out to a race.”

Although Blaney is a third-generation racer, his uncle Dale Blaney was recruited by the Lakers a decade prior to Bryant. The elder Blaney was a standout at West Virginia University but opted for racing over the NBA.

Blaney says what impressed him the most about Bryant over his career was his tremendous work ethic and how he could out-finesse players that were bigger or faster.

“He’d outwork you in every little bit,” Blaney said. “You have to respect someone like that that will figure out a way to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent, he’s going to outwork you really hard.

“For someone who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades—the social media stuff the last couple of days has been unbelievable to see—the number of people who looked up to him growing up. And I did, too. I looked up to him a lot. How can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you were growing up?

“As an athlete or someone who plays sports, you look up to other people who are great at what they do. When I grew up in the ‘90s, Kobe was my guy. Then Lebron (James) came along—and he was from my hometown. He inspired so many kids. The influence he had on other people to want to push themselves and want to be better was pretty amazing.”

When it comes to needing a push, Blaney hopes the new crew chief alignment does just that at Team Penske. The company announced earlier this month that Todd Gordon and his crew would be moving over to the No. 12 team with the 26-year-old driver, who will start his fifth full season in the NASCAR Cup Series. Blaney has spent the last couple of weeks getting acquainted with Gordon prior to hitting the track next month at Daytona International Speedway.

“Last year was a good year for Team Penske, but it wasn’t great,” Blaney said. “I think Mr.Penske looked at it as a nice change-up. Sometimes, you get complacent in the sport. Some times your drive changes. I’m not saying anyone at Team Penske is lacking drive to win, but switching things up, most of the time that’s a good thing. Everyone is getting a good team. I’m really looking forward to working with Todd a lot.

“Working with someone new is going to challenge me more. Todd has a certain way of doing things that I’m not used to and I have ways of doing things that he’s not used to. I think you can make it work real well. You learn from each other. That whole group won the championship two years ago. Obviously, they’re a great team. I had a great team but I’m excited to work with this group as well. I hope we have a good year.”

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