Ryan Blaney came into the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season expected to be one of the two top rookies in the Sprint Cup Series, but while two rookies made the Chase by race 26, Blaney wasn’t one of them.
That doesn’t mean it was necessarily a disappointing season for the driver of the No. 21 Ford owned by the Wood Brothers. After all, Blaney still finished 20th in points in his first full season on the circuit and also finished in the top 10 in nine races. But you get the sense he and his team would have liked to have done better, even though it was the Wood Brothers’ first time to run the full schedule since 2008 thanks to an alliance with Team Penske.
Blaney’s best stretch of the season came at the end of the first third of the season, where he strung together consecutive finishes of ninth at Talledaga Superspeedway, fifth at Kansas Speedway and eighth at Dover International Speedway. Considering it was Blaney’s first time at some of these early tracks, at the time, he looked to be strong contender to not only make the Chase, but also get that first Cup victory.
But difficult times came for him starting with the Kentucky Speedway race, where he finished 35th. That was the first of three finishes of 35th or worse in a six-race stretch. And while those 30-something placings were an issue, he couldn’t quite make up for them in the ensuing events, as his best finish was 11th in the other three races in that stretch.
Blaney ended up with 11 finishes of 25th or worse, and since he was unable get a Chase-clinching victory, too many of those types of finishes doomed his chances of making it on points.
That said, Blaney’s talent was evident when he had one of his two best races of the season during the second Michigan International Speedway race, where he finished fourth. What slim hopes he had of making the Chase in the final regular season race at Richmond ended early with a 39th-place finish. The son of Dave “Buckeye Bullet” Blaney did end up rebounding to finish fourth in the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway. That race also saw Blaney lead his first laps of the season, where he led the pack for eight circuits. The only other time he led was for three laps at the second Talladega race, when he finished 11th.
While his final finish in the points standings and missing the Chase were likely not quite what the team wanted, the talent Blaney showed on the track was obvious, and he should be a fixture in the series for years to come. After all, it was his rookie season. They’re not all going to be immediate winners.
Blaney’s immediate future is set, as he is scheduled to drive the No. 21 for the Wood Brothers again in 2017. The team also moved its shop from Harrisburg, North Carolina, to Mooresville, which puts the team much closer to its Penske team partners. That close of a proximity should help Blaney and the team as well in 2017.
As for the long-term future of Blaney, there is much about which to speculate. If the Penske alliance with the the No. 21 team doesn’t make Blaney a regular contender next year or in 2018, there are a couple of possible landing spots for him. He could join Penske and become the third member of the team. Or possibly, with Stewart-Haas Racing switching to Ford starting in 2017, a place could come open for him at some point on that four-car team.
But ultimately, it will be difficult to not compare the careers of Blaney and 2016 rookie of the year Chase Elliott. While Elliott had the upper hand in 2016, look to see if Blaney can shorten the gap, if not surpass Elliott in 2017.
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