A dozen years ago, Ryan Blaney showed up at the post-NASCAR Championship Weekend Media Day at a fancy hotel in Miami’s South Beach dressed in a pressed white Team Penske button down and pressed black pants. It was his “introduction” of sorts to NASCAR’s big time. With only a couple starts in NASCAR’s national series, the teenage Blaney smiled and was friendly, but for much of his time there, he sat gamely while reporters spoke to the other better-known competitors.
Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and the 29-year-old third-generation racer for the renowned Team Penske team was standing under a blast of confetti on the Phoenix Raceway infield stage – fans screaming congratulations from the grandstands amid an endless stream of congratulatory handshakes as Blaney celebrated his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Even one of the Penske team’s IndyCar drivers, Scott McLaughlin was on pit road – wearing a bright yellow Ryan Blaney fan t-shirt before the race – proud to be there for moral support and eager to be there for another big-time victory for this legendary multi-time NASCAR Championship motorsports team.
It was such an incredibly important moment for the popular young driver, whose voice broke up in emotion as he spoke to his team while driving the biggest victory lap of his 10-year NASCAR Cup Series career and landing the organization it’s second consecutive championship.
“I get emotional,” he acknowledged to the team on the radio, “Thank you so much. What an awesome year. Thanks for giving me a shot.”
It was one of the more popular championship celebrations. Blaney is a huge fan favorite and one of the brightest talents in the sport. As he stood on stage next to the giant NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy – his trophy – the smile was huge, the vibe all good-feels.
Even his competitors, such as 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski and 2021 champ Chase Elliott, made a beeline to congratulate their friend
It was Keselowski – who was then driving for Penske himself – that gave Blaney one of his first NASCAR opportunities – driving for Keselowski’s former NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series operation. Blaney made his truck debut in August, 2022 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway finishing sixth in his first race.
Two weeks later he went to Victory Lane – winning at Iowa Speedway and sending a strong message to teams, fans and competitors that he had what it takes. It was the start to this championship ending.
Keselowski had flown in overnight to compete after being with his wife Paige for the birth of their baby on Saturday in North Carolina. He was nevertheless, the first driver to find Blaney on the championship stage and congratulate him before flying back home. It was that important to him.
“Ryan’s earned this every step of the way and I’m glad I got to be a small part of Ryan’s career from the beginning,” Keselowski said. “He’s earned what he’s got and it’s so good so see that.”
Of Elliott, Blaney said, “To have him come up on stage was special. He’s been an amazing friend to me and a great competitor and it’s cool to have that championship we can share now.”
Blaney, one of the most even-keeled competitors in the sport, drove a rather aggressive race Sunday. Because he had too. He started outside the top-10 on the grid, led only two laps on the day and was often door-to-door on track – twice actually bumping other cars to show his impatience. And in the end, got to hold the big trophy.
The race winner Chastain smiled when asked about their battle royale, conceding he knew Blaney was at times frustrated with him, but that he was not going to just give the race trophy away.
“I know he’s mad and I don’t care,” Chastain said, adding, “I’m here to race him. I’m not going to wreck him.”
“It’s nothing other than wanting to win and hold track position,” Chastain emphasized. “He could run second and win the championship. …. And he ultimately did it.”
There is no doubting Blaney’s persistence and path. He earned two (Talladega, Ala. and Martinsville, Va.) of his three season victories in the Playoffs. He had a pair of runner-up finishes (Homestead-Miami and Phoenix) and the Martinsville win just in the last three races to close out his championship season.
And he’s been able to succeed while also being a fan favorite and one of the well-respected “good guys” in the sport. His rally toward the trophy was intentional and inspiring.
“It’s somewhat of an up-and-down year, but you’re going to have those moments,” Blaney told the crowd. “Through the summer we just worked really hard to try to get back where we needed to be. Kind of set a deadline for the Playoffs and we met that deadline.
“Just super proud of the effort by everybody at Team Penske who put tons and tons of hours into hard work. No one really got down. They just put their heads down and they decided to really put in a lot of work, and it showed up, especially these Playoffs, especially the last five weeks.
“So cool to have all their hard work pay off, so they should be proud.”
That pride is something Blaney can count on.
“I think his limits are the sky, to be honest with you,” Penske said of his driver, noting that he reminds him of another accomplished Penske racer. “He gets in that class with [four-time Indy 500 winner Rick] Mears. He’s a soft-spoken guy, really, but when he gets behind the wheel, like Joey [Logano], when he puts his hat on, don’t get in his way. I think he showed that today.
“He’s only better and better. He’s got the confidence. He’s a leader. He’s a winner and a champion.”
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