Ryan Blaney stood outside the infield care center, likely wanting to be anywhere and doing anything but answering questions about the ending of the Daytona 500. Blaney answered every question he faced from the few reporters there, and each answer shed further light on what he was thinking going into the last lap.
Except it was clear Blaney wasn’t pleased with what happened and that wasn’t unexpected. Not just because he once again missed out on winning the biggest race of the year, but how it happened and who it involved.
Blaney made it clear he was committed to being a good teammate. He pushed Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric as far as he could to ensure one of them was going to win the race…and then Blaney tried to be the one who was listed first on the results sheet. Cindric blocked. The two made contact. Blaney ended up hitting the wall.
It was the hitting the wall part that seemed to bother Blaney the most. He described it as “getting fenced,” While Blaney didn’t directly answer whether the move was fair or foul, his answer said enough.
“I don’t know,” Blaney said after finishing fourth. “Congrats to him, I guess. Got to throw a block in that situation.”
Strength in numbers has been the name of the game at the superspeedway races for some time now, and the Ford camp has perfected the teammate game. Between fast cars and drivers who are all-in on making sure one of them is taking home the trophy, Ford has now won the last two Daytona 500 races and four of the previous five superspeedway races.
Teamwork prevailed in the Daytona 500, which didn’t go unnoticed by those reaping the rewards. So unhappy with how the 2021 race ended when he had two cars at the front and both ended up crashing, Roger Penske talked with his drivers “a lot” afterward.
The message was simple.
“I said, ‘Look, the best man wins at the end. I think we’ve got to work together,’” said Penske.
Blaney listened, and his care center comments reflected that. Twice Blaney said he wasn’t going to do anything until he was sure a Penske car would win. Maybe in a way, it cost him. Was there a chance to jump out sooner? Could he have raced Cindric differently?
“I think it’s the person,” Penske said of what makes Blaney a good teammate. “I think it’s the human being himself. I think we’ve taught (him) a lot about racing. He was a racer when he came in, and we’ve given him good equipment. He listens, and I think he knows his teammates can help him and vice versa. I think he has that as his M.O.
“I think Joey [Logano] has taken the leadership on the team being the senior guy and Ryan, I think they’re both trying to mentor Austin and Harrison [Burton]. I think we’ve got a great combination of young guys and people that can be here for a long time, and I hope many times we can be here (in victory lane).”
Cindric does not doubt how the ’21 race ended played a role in the thinking at the end of Sunday night’s race. But Cindric also called Blaney the “glue” to the Team Penske superspeedway program and is very good at what he does.
“I think Ryan has kind of been the guy that’s honestly gotten the short end of the stick sometimes as far as being a great teammate,” Cindric said. “We talked about it as a team on Monday before we left for Daytona, as far as what the rules were going to be there and how to manage that. Ryan had a shot to win the race off of Turn 4 — that was his chance to do it, and I knew that’s the opportunity that he wanted to have, and I think the best chance for him to do that is to be second in line.
“He was in position to be able to do that but otherwise, great team effort and proud of that — and hopefully, I can repay the favor.”
Winning crew chief Jeremy Bullins knew it would be negligent not to thank Blaney.
“That’s a hell of a teammate,” Bullins said. “I’ve been here with him and felt like we were going to win with him, and I can’t thank him enough for being that good of a teammate because we probably don’t win that race without him.”
The praise is of little solace for Blaney. Bullins and Blaney were second in 2017 to Kurt Busch in 2017. They were second again in 2020, by inches, to Denny Hamlin. Last year, Blaney’s fast car was wrecked on lap 14, and he watched the rest of the race from the couch.
Having come close to winning the Daytona 500 a few times now doesn’t make it hurt any less. Sunday, teamwork made the dream work for Team Penske but left Blaney in no mood to celebrate.