In many ways, Ryan Blaney had a career year in 2019. He won a race (fall Talladega) for the third year in a row, and he posted career bests in top 5s (11), top 10s (18) and average finish (13.7). He also posted his best points finish to date.
Blaney’s season got off to an inauspicious start, as he crashed out of the Daytona 500, the first of four races he’d fail to finish on the year. After struggling in the opening weeks, he kicked off a string of top 5s starting in the fourth race of the year at ISM Raceway, and he scored three more top 5s in the next four races. But the first half of the season was a study in inconsistency for Blaney. Top 5s would be followed by finishes in the 20s or worse, and he wasn’t able to string together more than three consecutive top-10 finishes during that period.
The second half saw more consistency from Blaney, who secured a playoff berth on points and put together a solid postseason run, with the win at Talladega highlighting a stretch that also included five top 10s and three top 5s. It wasn’t a championship-caliber playoffs for Blaney, but it was enough to advance through the first two rounds before eventually finishing seventh.
Showing improvement each year, Blaney is on a classic career path, and at just 26, he’s got time on his side. He’s a second-generation Cup driver, so he understands the grind and the importance of consistently strong finishes. And he’s gotten better at achieving that consistency each year. More top 5s and top 10s will lead to more opportunities to win — there’s a reason the top-5 points finishers all had at least 21 top 10s on the year in 2019.
The good news is that Blaney isn’t far off that goal. He works well with crew chief Jeremy Bullins, and their communication has been a key to his improvement in the Cup Series. They’ve been together since Blaney’s first race in 2014, and it’s a relationship that has worked well.
Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing have been Ford’s top teams of late, and the Roush-Yates power under the hoods for both teams has proven to be exceptionally durable without sacrificing horsepower. Blaney had only one race cut short for an engine issue, and that was an overheating incident, not an outright engine failure. Last season saw zero engine failures for Team Penske or satellite organization Wood Brothers Racing.
There are still some questions surrounding sponsorship and the number of races returning sponsors will cover, but Blaney did add Advance Auto Parts for four races, and he’s a popular, marketable young driver. Finding backing has not been a major issue for the No. 12 team because of the package Blaney brings to the table. He’s fan-friendly, uses social media well and doesn’t do anything especially controversial on or off the track. Those traits don’t go unnoticed by sponsors.
They don’t go unnoticed by fans, either. Blaney’s popularity has grown steadily, and Team Penske works hard to bring all of the organization’s drivers closer to fans through social media and other appearances. Blaney represents a generation of drivers who easily interact with fans online as well as at the racetrack, and that’s a boon for the entire sport. As in-person access to drivers has dwindled, drivers who use online platforms effectively will ultimately attract fans and sponsors to NASCAR.
As 2020 begins, Blaney’s focus should be on consistency — if he can turn a few top 15s into top 10s and top 20s into top 15s, he’ll not only make the playoffs but also advance fairly deep. He’s not a title favorite yet, but his teammates are in Penske equipment, and that bodes very well for his future.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 15/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)