Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Not only is 26-year-old NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Ryan Blaney off to the best start of his career, his Team Penske crew has duly taken note of his stellar record and high potential by rewarding his work with a multi-year contract extension.
Team Penske announced the news Friday from Phoenix Raceway, site of Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Ryan is a true talent with a long runway ahead of him and we are excited to have him as part of the future of Team Penske,’’ the team’s founder Roger Penske said. “Since joining our team, Ryan has developed into a championship caliber driver and his personality and engagement with fans has made him a terrific ambassador for NASCAR.
“In addition, Ryan has done a great job of working with our partners to support their activation and investment throughout each year. I am looking forward to even more success together.’’
That was high praise coming from the legendary owner, who first hired Blaney as an 18-year-old, giving him opportunity in a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series races for the team. Blaney’s first career win for Team Penske came in that series in 2013.
Blaney earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Pocono, Pa. in 2017, driving for the Wood Brothers team with Team Penske backing. He moved into the No. 12 Team Penske Ford fulltime in 2018, winning at the Charlotte road course and then again last year at Talladega Superspeedway during a NASCAR Playoff run that resulted in Blaney’s career-best season finish (seventh).
“I am really excited to get that out there,’’ Blaney said Friday of his big contract news. “It is something that we have been working on for a little while through the off-season. It is nice to finally announce it and all that stuff. I am really excited to continue with the Penske group for years to come.’’
It’s certainly been a productive pairing.
Blaney began the 2020 season scoring his second runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 – matching his 2017 effort in the season-opener. He then nearly won at Las Vegas two weeks ago. He was leading when a late-race caution flew with two laps to go and his team opted to pit, ultimately finishing 11th. Then last week, Blaney was seemingly on track for another top-five finish when – while running second – he had to pit with three laps remaining for a quick tire change.
He is the only driver to lead laps in all three races to date and he took the championship lead last week for the first time in his career.
Although he hasn’t won previously in the NASCAR Cup Series at this week’s Phoenix Raceway one-miler, he won the pole position for this spring race last year and earned career-best third-place finishes in both 2019 Phoenix races.
“Honestly, it has been nice to start off the year good,’’ Blaney said. “We didn’t get the finishes we wanted but to be running up in the top three every single race and working with a new team, that is just great.
“You are going to build off of that as [crew chief] Todd [Gordon] and I get used to each other and things like that. There are a couple things I wish I could have taken back last week that hurt us toward the end of the race. That is just learning.
“We are doing our job right and the finishes will come. We are working together but the big thing is staying on top of it all year. Teams will come around, ones that might be struggling right now will figure it out and be good and we will have to keep getting better ourselves. You can never be truly satisfied with where you are running because teams will continue to get better. You have to stay with the group.’’
To that end, Blaney and his fellow Ford drivers took part in some team-building exercises earlier this week led by the manufacturer. And as he’s done all season, Blaney proved to be on top of this game.
The Ford contingent all met up at Arizona State University’s football stadium and competed in a sort of “Punt, Pass and Kick” competition. Blaney won the field goal competition, nailing a 35-yarder.
“Ford does a good job of trying to keep everybody pretty close,’’ Blaney said. “We are all competitors but at the same time we drive for Ford and it is very important to try to get them to Victory Lane.”
Of his standout moment, Blaney said, “I am pretty proud of that. My leg is sore today, but I did it.
“[Corey] LaJoie is a pretty good athlete, he won the throwing competition,’’ Blaney shared. “Surprisingly enough, Cole Custer won the punt competition. I don’t know why I said surprising, he seems like a good athlete, but that is what we do.
“Just kind of hang out with the drivers and the Ford Performance guys and things like that. Get everyone close. We have dinner and things like that. It is just something that they do to bring everyone together, which I think is good.’’
Good all right. It’s been that kind of week, that kind of season for Blaney.