The saying "if it weren't for bad luck, he'd have no luck at all" certainly seemed to apply to Ryan Blaney's 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. At times, Blaney appeared poised for a breakout season — he posted a career high in laps led — but the wins that looked like they'd come stayed just out of reach.
Blaney wasn't to blame for many of the incidents he found himself in. His equipment wasn't to blame, either, as all five of the races he failed to finish were due to damage from on-track incidents. He didn't suffer a terminal mechanical failure in 2020.
It wasn't all bad; Blaney led in points for a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown, and he tied his career best with 11 top-five finishes, including a win at Talladega in the summer heat. It was consistency that Blaney lacked for much of the season.
He did have two streaks of four or more top-10 finishes, one in early summer and one (five straight races) to close the season. He finished strong, placing no lower than seventh in the final five races. He'd been eliminated from contention by then, but he has some positive momentum on his side entering the 2021 season.
He's got a strong team behind him, led by veteran crew chief Todd Gordon. Last season was their first year together, and they enter the new year with a greater comfort level. They also got through last year without practice or qualifying, and that's going to continue through most of 2021 as the pandemic grinds on. They're in a better position than they were a year ago. Gordon is an excellent race strategist, leading Joey Logano to the 2018 Cup title before being moved to Blaney's team to start 2020. Gordon is also a strong team leader who coaches his drivers well.
Along with Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske led the Ford charge in 2020, putting Blaney in the playoffs along with teammates Brad Keselowski and Logano and quasi-teammate Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing.
Ford has two major weapons in the arsenal: a dedicated support team from the manufacturer via its research and development center in Concord, N.C., and Roush-Yates engines under the hoods of its cars. Drivers can access Ford's racing simulator, and an army of race analysts watches every aspect of each race from a war room at the center. The manufacturer's efforts have paid off, with a total of eight teams in the 2020 playoffs and two teams in the championship race.
Engine builder Doug Yates has a formidable task in building competitive engines for upwards of 10 race teams, but every power plant he puts out is durable and fast. Blaney certainly benefits from the Blue Oval on his hood.
Blaney has speed. He has an organization behind him that will work to help him succeed, and champion teammates to lean on. He's got all the pieces to go deep into the playoffs. But what Blaney has got to do in 2021 to be a title contender is to capitalize on his strong run to finish out last year and to find more consistency. While many of his 2020 problems were not of his own making, he also put himself in positions where he got caught up in other's issues. Only Kyle Busch and Cole Custer failed to finish more races (six) among the 2020 playoff drivers than Blaney's five DNFs, and only Custer, with 22, posted fewer lead-lap finishes in that group than Blaney's 24.
Blaney will have to improve on those numbers before he's a serious title contender, and he'll have to find Victory Lane more often as well. No title contender in 2020 had fewer than three wins. Blaney has all the pieces to post a multi-win season — but he still has to put them all together.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 16/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)