When an organization like Team Penske adds a third team just for you, it’s about as big a vote of confidence as a driver can get. Owner Roger Penske had enough faith in Ryan Blaney to do just that last year, and Blaney responded with his best season so far, posting career bests in top 5s (eight), top 10s (16), poles (three), average finish (14.8) and laps led (660). He won a wild playoff race on Charlotte’s infield road course as well.
That’s a very solid start for a new team and a fourth-year driver. Team Penske has done well in NASCAR’s youth movement. Blaney is just 25 and already succeeding on the track. Teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each won a title before age 30 with the organization. While a third car didn’t work out several years ago, it appears that the No. 12 group is anything but a burden on the Penske stable. Blaney’s 10th-place points finish meant that all three teams finished in the top 10 last season, including Logano’s championship run.
Blaney, though only a few years younger than Logano, is a prominent face in NASCAR’s latest generation of drivers. He’s well-spoken and social-media-savvy but doesn’t come across as overly reined in by his sponsors the way some drivers have been. Letting drivers be themselves has been a Penske hallmark, and it’s worked well for sponsors and fans. The organization goes out of its way to promote its drivers in all racing series by showing a less-than-serious side, and that has appeal — it’s good for Blaney and his teammates. Blaney is a sponsor’s dream: young, talented, winning and personable.
An array of sponsors chose to back Blaney last year, and he’s added a couple of new ones as well. That puts a degree of pressure on a driver, because he has to perform to keep a number of backers instead of just one or two, but he represented nine different companies in his eight top-5 runs last year. That’s exceptional value — they’re getting a solid return on investment.
Team Penske played second fiddle to Stewart-Haas Racing among the Ford teams for much of 2018, but with three cars winning races as well as the title, they were just as much of a powerhouse. Blaney’s getting the best equipment in the garage, with Roush Yates power under the hood. The question surrounding him in terms of the racecars is the same that every team faces this season: How quickly will the No. 12 team adapt to a drastically different rules package? How Blaney handles the higher-downforce, lower-horsepower cars will be key to his season.
He’ll have crew chief Jeremy Bullins returning to help him navigate the new package. Bullins is the only head wrench Blaney has had in his Cup career, and he has multiple wins in the Xfinity Series for Team Penske previously — in a series that uses a higher downforce package than the Cup cars have had recently. That could give Blaney an advantage that some others don’t enjoy.
Blaney still has some things to iron out before he’s a title contender. He failed to finish five times last year and in 2017. His nine finishes of 20th or worse, including those five DNFs, still hint at inconsistency. He improved in that department as the year wore on, posting just one DNF (radiator) over the second half. But it’s still a concern.
Blaney needs to add more top-5 finishes to his stat chart in 2019 — only two drivers in the top 10 in points last year had fewer than Blaney’s eight. If he improves in this area, he can go deeper in the playoffs. It may be too early to expect more than that, but this is a driver headed in the right direction.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 10/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)