Posted: 9:46 am Monday, June 12th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Ryan Blaney’s masterful wresting of the trophy in Sunday’s Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway Sunday is arguably the most popular moment of the 2017 NASCAR season. Blaney joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Talladega and Austin Dillon at Charlotte to get his first-ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in the last five weeks. Blaney’s famous No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford drew raucous cheering and a windfall of congratulations from both the at-track crowd and the millions watching from afar. And while Stenhouse Jr.’s and Dillon’s victories were both popular and long coming, Blaney’s had a different feel.
Stenhouse Jr.’s win came in his 158th Cup start, Dillon’s at 133. Blaney’s came in his 68th, but felt even longer coming. Ever since Blaney and the Wood’s went full-time as a satellite Team Penske operation in 2016, the youngster has been knocking on Victory Lane’s door. Blaney last season consistently ran in the top 15 and occasionally appeared in the top 5. This year, Blaney has been a constant top 5 presence, has led 243 laps (compared to 31 in his past three seasons combined), and should have won Texas and Kansas at least. Blaney has been a strong comer in Stages 1 and 2, but has befallen horrible luck (see: only seven lead lap finishes in 14 races this year). But there is another intriguing and galvanizing facet to Blaney’s victory.
Despite having only run about half the races Dillon and Stenhouse Jr. have each run, Blaney has grabbed a charged up fan base. Part of that is simply by being in the No. 21 Ford, an iconic number for a Wood Brothers team that is an underdog. And though he is the son of a driver, Dave Blaney is his dad, not champions and fan favorites Dale Earnhardt or Bill Elliott. So that makes Blaney scrappy in his own right, an endearing quality to many. And then there is his personality, which possibly represents its own turning point in the NASCAR garage.
Blaney is quite hilarious. He and his best bud Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. (who became the first black driver in Cup in 11 years coincidentally the same day his best friend won) post all sorts of colorful antics on social media. Though soft-spoken, Blaney is great with the media and not in the “Aw shucks, everybody is great”kind of way. In fact, he’s a downright “Radio Sweetheart” on his team communications, an irony not lost when he couldn’t communicate via radio to his team Sunday. And the 23-year-old co-hosts the “Glass Case of Emotion” podcast with MRN reporter and former Miss Sprint Cup Kim Coon and Chuck Bush, a NASCAR-produced show that only halfway covers racing. It’s salty language is a big hint that it’s not some PR sham.
Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon deserves tons of credit for their wins – they were exciting and took skill and precision to pull off. Stenhouse Jr.out-foxed Kyle Busch (a theme that is recurring almost weekly now) at Talladega. Dillon stretched his fuel better than Jimmie Johnson and then held off a charging Busch in the Coca-Cola 600. But those respectively were a plate race win and a fuel mileage gamble. Blaney and almost the entire field took tires after a late caution and Busch and Brad Keselowski stayed out. Blaney aggressively hunted down Busch, kept control as Busch blocked him, then passed him. Then he held off another winless champion in Kevin Harvick to win. His victory was the biggest arrival of the 2017 season.
With Chase Elliott knocking on the door almost weekly in his second season in the No. 24 and rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez performing well in their top notch rides, the next guard is worth watching. Kyle Larson is the year’s breakout driver. Stenhouse Jr. and Dillon are in the playoffs. And now Blaney has a win. You pair this driver list with the obviously talented Chris Buescher (who needs better equipment), rookie Ty Dillon, Wallace Jr. (who will land somewhere more permanently), hungry thoroughbreds in the lower series like William Byron and Christopher Bell, and whoever ends up in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 (cough…Alex Bowman…cough) and the NASCAR future is not only rich with talent, but also with personalities that can pair with those results. This intersection of talent and color is where NASCAR should live and is returning.