Now comes the hard part for Ryan Blaney.
With a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the youngest member of the Team Penske trio assured himself the distinction of having at least one win for the fifth consecutive year. This one came in the sixth race of the season, the earliest that Blaney has won a NASCAR Cup Series race.
Winning is great, and it means Blaney will again be a part of the playoff grid, but winning another race or two this season would go even further for he and the No. 12 team. In a way, Blaney still needs to prove himself and show he is a contender on any weekend, and not just when things go his way.
As his teammates racked up wins with ease – and in Joey Logano’s case, a title three years ago – Blaney has yet to crack the code of winning multiple times in one season. Naturally, he offered an “Oh, yeah, for sure” when asked after last weekend if that is the expectation this season. And he fully understands that no driver wants to be a one-win wonder.
“Honestly, it’s nice to get a win early in the season,” Blaney said. “Six races, six different winners. It’s nice to get a win early in the season; that’s something that has kind of eluded us. We got the win at Talladega last year, but it was mid-season. Getting one early is great. I look forward to the rest of the season.”
Blaney and crew chief Todd Gordon both felt they should have won numerous times last year. Although much of 2020 was a learning season for both, the group came out of the gates strong, with 77 laps led in the first four races (before the start of the coronavirus pandemic) and were in contention for the victory late at both Las Vegas and Fontana before unfortunate luck intervened.
Last year, Blaney led more laps in a single-season than ever before, and was one top 10 finish away from tying his single-season high. But something always seemed to go wrong when it came to closing out races. Take leading early and crashing from the top five at Bristol; starting from the pole at Martinsville but not having enough to challenge Martin Truex Jr.; dominating Texas before an ill-timed caution split the field on pit strategy.
Those were just a few of the highlights. Speed was never a problem, and expectations for Blaney were as high as they’d ever been, especially with his being paired with someone of Gordon’s caliber. Yet the end result of their first season was a letdown, especially considering how they’d repeatedly shot themselves in the foot in the first round of the playoffs to lead to an early elimination.
“I’ve watched Ryan grow in the last 14 months,” Gordon said. “He’s had tons of speed. We’re understanding what we need to do as a race team to give him better stuff at the end of the race. There’s been places we’ve gone the other way. That’s all part of the learning curve. Trying to put that together.
“I was thoroughly impressed with the drive there after Stage 2. He knew late in that run before the pit cycle, the final run, he was running Kyle [Larson] down pretty hard. I love the fact that he could put the pressure on him and still run up there at the top. I think this is something that we as a team can continue to build off of. I think there’s a lot more opportunities to do this.
“We’ve had a couple situations where it’s gone away from us, but I would say that we all are figuring out what these pieces are that we can put together to make sure we’re successful at the end. (Atlanta) was a culmination of those. We’ll build off that.”
Atlanta is also the first win for Blaney on a traditional track, if one wants to look at it that way. His first career win came on the unique Pocono Raceway, followed by the Charlotte Roval, and then back-to-back triumphs at Talladega Superspeedway. As team owner Roger Penske explained it, Atlanta was the first win where Blaney had to “grind it out” against the field.
“He’d be fast, and he even said it himself, ‘I’m fast early on, but I can’t keep it at the end’,” said Penske. “I think it was a great win for him and a lot of confidence, which I think we’ll see a lot of (from) him this year.”
Hopefully, Penske was talking about the former and not the latter being seen from Blaney going forward. Because it’s not confidence that he needs, it’s more trophies to fill up what continues to be a pretty empty table.