The timing of NASCAR’s unexpected hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic was especially unfortunate timing for Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney.
“You’re kind of on a roll, and you have a bad race at Phoenix and were looking forward to going to Atlanta, a place we’ve been good in the past … and now you have to wait,” Blaney told RACER. “That stinks. But I’ve been really happy with a new team.”
For Blaney and the No. 12 team, Phoenix was the worst of the four races the NASCAR Cup Series had run before being shut down. He finished 37th there, caught up in an accident with teammate Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. The accident was so early in the race it never gave Blaney and crew chief Todd Gordon time to work on their Ford to see if they could contend for a win.
Daytona, Las Vegas, and Fontana had gone well, even if that wasn’t reflected in the results. Blaney led laps, and in all three races was inside the top five with less than five laps to go. He is sixth in Cup Series points as the racing world remains quiet.
Like his teammates, Blaney came into the new season with some adjusting to do following a team-wide crew shake-up during the winter. The Ohio native’s number and spotter remain the same, but the guys he’s working with are different, with Gordon – Joey Logano’s crew chief last year – now calling the shots.
“Working with Todd and all those guys has been really good,” said Blaney. “It’s been a big change; I’m sure the other two guys will tell you the same. But it’s been going pretty good so far; just got to get the monkey off our back. I thought our performance was there, just a matter of getting the finishes.”
Gordon’s experienced hand has very quickly had influence on his 26-year-old driver. When many expected Blaney to climb out of the car disappointed and frustrated at missed opportunities, he’s instead held his head high, reminding everyone that sometimes there is simply an unfortunate end to a good race.
Clearly, having fast cars has also helped Blaney’s attitude and kept him from getting too riled up…
But Gordon has been publicly pumping up Blaney and his talent. Coming into the season, he spoke confidently to RACER about Blaney having both the ability and the speed to win multiple races and emerge as a serious championship contender. The key was going to be honing his skills and strengthening areas that might be lacking.
“Working with Jeremy [Bullins] for so long – I love Jeremy, he’s become a really good friend of mine – but Todd has been different in that I’ll get upset during the race over something, and he’s about just focusing forward,” Blaney says. “That’s the reset I need – a quick thing. Sometimes I just have to get something out, and he’s really good at just being like, ‘Well, it’s over and let’s go,’. That has been really good, and I enjoy (that) about him.
“I think that’s really helped me as a racer understand some situations and forget about it right away,” Blaney continues. “And that goes back to not staying mad at something because there’s no point. You just realize, ‘OK, you can vent, you can let something out for five seconds and then it’s time to go back to doing your job.’ [Gordon’s] helped with that.”
Blaney and Gordon have put hours into developing a relationship. Even though they’d already been teammates inside the Penske camp, it’s rare to have a connection with guys on other teams, or even know them very well. But when someone new suddenly becomes ‘your’ guy – Gordon, in this case – there’s a chance to sit down and forge a connection.
Just days after the January reshuffle, Blaney and Gordon sat down together. The conversation lasted a couple of hours as the two discussed areas to improve. Gordon tried to get an idea of what Blaney likes to feel in his race car, and Blaney shared a list of things he hoped Gordon could help him with.
“What a perfect time to start fresh and really tackle these issues,” Blaney admits.
Gordon was immediately impressed by Blaney’s ideas. And though they’ve had just four races together, Blaney himself has already noticed a difference.
“One big [thing], and I think we’ve done a great job [at] this year, is keeping your eyes open for later in the race,” Blaney explains. “There are a lot of times in previous years – and I think it’s easy to do when you’re younger – [I was] not looking at the big picture of the last 10 laps. You just focus on the here and now. The best guys, I feel like, can focus forward and predict what the track is going to do, or what they need at the end of the race.
“I look at Kyle Busch being great at it; [Kevin] Harvick is great at it. They do a really good job of predicting what’s going to happen and getting ahead of that, and that’s something I’ve struggled with a little bit early on. This year, I feel like we’ve done great. We’ve really gotten good at the end of these races, – a lot better than maybe where we’ve started. So, that’s been really positive, and that was one of the top things on my list of, ‘OK, let’s pinpoint this problem and open my eyes a little more.’ He’s helped me with that by always asking me what I think I need later in the race, and that’s a good reminder to me to focus forward and look toward the future of the race.”
Blaney and Gordon have earned the second-most stage points in the Cup Series with 43. (Chase Elliott leads the way with 50.)
But with the early momentum now gone for Blaney and the entire garage, the question becomes, when does racing start again? NASCAR was hoping it was going to be early May at Martinsville Speedway, but a rumored schedule change could mean a return a few weeks later at Charlotte at the earliest.
Once the schedule becomes clearer, Blaney says it will be easy to look at the weekend ahead and be ready – ready to get back on a roll with Gordon, and fulfill the potential they’ve quickly shown to be capable.
“Maybe it’ll take a handful of laps (in the first practice back on track to knock the rust off), but then everyone will be back in the swing of things,” says Blaney. “We can all get back in the (race) mode pretty quick.”