There was a point during the 2020 regular season when Ryan Blaney appeared on the cusp of dominance, his form building toward a magnificent, trajectory-shifting crescendo. He entered the summer race at Kansas Speedway with the fastest car in all of the NASCAR Cup Series on 550-hp tracks, identified by those closely watching his advanced stats as a shoo-in for the victory. He led 15 of the 267 laps in the event, none of them in the stage that paid. He finished 20th, the first result in a consecutive 11-race stretch in which he finished outside the top 10 nine times. That stretch included his first-round playoff elimination.
That one race on a lazy Thursday night in July may have been a microcosm for Blaney's entire year, which provided the feeling — backed by empirical data — that he'd soon break through into another competitive stratosphere. He's been a one-win-a-year driver for each of the last four seasons, and while that's certainly nothing to dismiss, it's a purgatory for a competitor who has all the tools but has yet to put them all together. Away from the racetrack, he's completely at ease with himself — a 27-year-old Star Wars fanatic who rocks old-school racing shirts and, when the mood strikes him, a handlebar mustache — but on the track, he's a work in progress, a driver whose statistical profile suggests that better results are on the horizon.
If those results don't come, it's not for a lack of trying, says the man himself. He's fresh off of a season in which he worked with a new crew chief who complemented his driving style. He recognizes a veteran driver whose path he'd like to emulate. He understands his biggest statistical strength, even though he's unsure how it came to be.
Blaney sat down with Athlon Sports for an exclusive Q&A about his development as a driver, living up to his new long-term contract with Team Penske and his growing celebrity.
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
On paper, you made strides in 2020. Your Production in Equal Equipment Rating, as measured by Motorsports Analytics, improved — seventh in the series, up from 10th in 2019 — and so did your pass efficiency, with a pass differential 141 positions better than the year prior. But subjectively, how do you think you improved as a driver?
I obviously like to keep improving, you know? We didn't make it out of the first round of the playoffs, so that kind of put a damper on it, but I think there are other ways you can improve. Just kind of growing, getting a little more acclimated to the sport. It's already been over five years, but I always want to keep improving. I'd like to have more wins, but just learning more, approaching angles a little bit differently.
With Todd (Gordon, crew chief), it's been really neat to work with someone new. I'd been with Jeremy Bullins for really my whole Cup career, and you get in one mindset of how he likes to do things. As a young driver, that molds what you like. But then working with someone new, a new crew chief, you can kind of combine both of their ideas and mindsets of how they approach a weekend, build the data bank in your head with different options of things you'd like to try.
I feel like when you're a rookie or a young driver, you're just wide open all the time. Like, "How fast can I drive the car?" That stuff doesn't change, but you can approach it more methodically. You look at a bunch of veteran drivers and the way they've progressed over the years, and they don't have to be standing on the gas all the time. They can approach it in different ways and still figure out how to be fast. The young guys who figure that out quickly advance in their learning curve faster.
Are there any specific veteran drivers to whom you pay close attention?
The one who stands out is Kevin Harvick. I feel he's one of the best ones. I watched him growing up, when he was younger and kind of what I was talking about: wide open. As he's gotten more years in the sport, he's just become incredibly smart at it and is still as competitive as he's ever been. That speaks volumes.
I try to learn from him just because he's so incredible at progressing and advancing. I'd say in the last few years, he's been the best he's ever been, while in his 40s. That just shows you can be very smart and figure out how to be very fast other than just using your right foot.
Since you've entered the Cup Series, you're routinely a top-5 restarter. The best restarters tend to be older — like Harvick, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.; Truex ranked first in position retention on restarts in 2020 — but there you are, ranked second to Truex. Why has restarting across different tracks and rules packages clicked for you?
That's a good question. And I do think I do a good job at it; I just don't know why that is. I've always been on the aggressive side on restarts. I think that goes back to running late models. You've got to be on it, right away. It's one of the easiest places to pass people; one of the easiest is pit road, the other is restarts.
If you can't go forward on the restart, you better make sure that you're at least staying where you're at. You can't just give up spots. That's kind of the mentality I've always had. I've always tried to be good at timing restarts and runs. I think I've been doing it ever since late models, because those guys were so on it on restarts, if you weren't paying attention, they took advantage of you. I was really young when I started in PASS (the Pro All Stars Series, a late model series in the Southeast) and those guys had many years on them. I learned from an early age to be an aggressor on restarts, and I think it carried over to where I am now.
Last March, you announced a multi-year contract extension with Team Penske despite other marquee rides coming available in 2021. That agreement was made before the onset of COVID-19. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, other drivers who signed contracts saw salary reductions ranging from 30 to 40 percent. Do you feel like the smartest guy in the room having agreed to a deal so early?
I talked to Mr. (Roger) Penske and everybody over there about continuing with them for years to come. I was really happy there. We started talks at the end of 2019, and we came to an agreement early.
I really wanted to get that stuff out of the way and not wait, wait, wait. No one knew that COVID was coming. It was definitely not something we planned. We just came to terms right away and were able to sign and get that done and then focus on the year.
Do you feel compelled to prove your worth in a market where, now, many drivers are being paid less than they once were?
You always want to prove yourself, right? No matter what happens, you always want to prove your ability to drive cars and (that) you're worth them re-signing. I felt like this was one of the most competitive years we've had, but there are some things that need working out. Not getting more wins or making it to the second round of the playoffs really stinks.
You've made yourself popular with fans. You have endorsement deals, such as BodyArmor and the Flag & Anthem clothing line. You've been in commercials, movies, you've even got a podcast — Glass Case of Emotion — and it seems you've built yourself a platform providing you opportunities not available to every NASCAR driver. You're uniquely positioned in that fans are paying close attention to what you say and do. So, how will you use this platform?
I've always just kind of done what I've enjoyed and been fortunate for some of the cool opportunities. The best thing you can do is just be yourself. Be genuine, not be anyone fake or pretend to be someone that you're not. If the fans like you for who you are, then that's great. If they don't, that's their opinion.
As far as a set plan of where I want to go outside of racing, I haven't really thought of that. I just want to go racing, and if there is a really neat opportunity that I think is fun and cool for me to do, then I'd love to pursue it. Some of the stuff I've done came up at the right time — in-the-moment stuff from just being genuine in who I am. I'm fortunate for the opportunities that've come my way. We'll see where it goes.
— Interview conducted by David Smith (@DavidSmithMA) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.
(Top photo courtesy of @Team_Penske)