Winning does not come easily in NASCAR.
It did not for Ryan Blaney at Pocono Raceway on Sunday. It has not come easily for Wood Brothers Racing over the last decade or two. Yet the newest winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series delivered NASCAR’s oldest team to Victory Lane one more time.
Blaney’s victory was a bit of a surprise, considering the veteran racers he had to beat to take the checkered flag. But the No. 21 team has been clearly building towards a victory since the beginning of the year.
After a last-lap charge that almost netted him a Daytona 500 win, Blaney became a more frequent front runner than he was during his rookie season. The Wood Brothers had clearly stepped up their intermediate track program, and he was taking full advantage of his faster cars.
At Texas Motor Speedway in April, Blaney appeared to have the strongest car on the track. However, pit strategy buried the No. 21 deep in the field, and Blaney was unable to fully recover. He had another shot several weeks later at Kansas Speedway, but got beat by Martin Truex Jr. in the end and had to settle for fourth. In the next two races, Blaney showed good speed again, but broken axles took the No. 21 team out of contention in both instances.
No doubt that Blaney has experienced his share of frustration in 2017. Sunday’s race at Pocono was the culmination of a lot of hard work by the Wood Brothers, who snapped another long winless streak with a young driver behind the wheel. It was a difficult win that forced Blaney to fight to the last second, holding off Kevin Harvick all the way to the checkered flag.
In fact, Blaney is not the only driver to emerge victorious from a hard-fought battle this year. The difficulty of securing wins has become a major theme of the 2017 MENCS season, both for those who reach victory lane and for those who get left out.
Kurt Busch received crash damage and led a grand total of one lap en route to his Daytona 500 victory. The No. 41 machine did not look like a car that should have been able to win a restrictor plate race, but Busch found a way. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drove a fine race at Talladega Superspeedway to claim his first career win.
Of course, he had to deal with the usual superspeedway mayhem, dodging the big wrecks and expertly working the draft in the closing laps. In the Coca-Cola 600, Austin Dillon had to keep Jimmie Johnson in his sights, run fast enough to stay ahead of Martin Truex Jr., and save enough fuel to reach the finish. Dillon won too. Also, credit Ryan Newman for holding off the field at Phoenix International Raceway to win his first race in nearly four years.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch and Harvick, among others, have experienced the challenge of winning by not reaching victory lane yet. In 14 races, Busch has piled up five top fives and over 700 laps led. He has shown speed on intermediate tracks, superspeedways, short tracks, and flat tracks. He has been the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver to regularly contend for wins this year, and he has even won the pole for the last two races. However, Busch remains winless, even after having the best car at Pocono on Sunday.
Harvick was close at Pocono too. He followed Blaney during the final laps, but he was unable to get around the No. 21. Aside from Sunday, Harvick’s best chance at victory was at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but a late speeding penalty doomed his chances.
The 2017 season has not been a bad one for Harvick, who has nine top 10s and is the strongest Stewart-Haas Racing driver most weeks. Yet the No. 4 team’s search for its first win of the season will continue into the summer.
Perhaps it is such a surprise to see Busch and Harvick without wins because they make winning look so easy. In his most recent Cup Series victory, last year’s Brickyard 400, Busch looked nearly untouchable, leading 149 of 170 laps. For evidence of Harvick’s dominance, look no further than the eight most recent races at Phoenix. Harvick has won five of them, including four in a row. Busch, Harvick, and other winless drivers this year like Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, have had such great careers that it feels weird to see them not winning. Furthermore, when they do win, it is just another day at the office. They have all won before, and they will all win again.
Blaney had not won before Sunday, and yet the man who emerged from the No. 21 car had a demeanor more akin to a veteran racer. Blaney was happy to be in victory lane, but he did not appear surprised to be there, even after the struggles of the last few weeks. He looked like a driver who knew he could win, and one that will also win again.
Do not let Blaney’s cool exterior fool you. His victory was as hard-fought as they come in a year full of hard-fought victories. The impending playoffs, to be sure, will have a big impact on how fans remember the 2017 MENCS season. Yet for the time being, moments like Blaney’s win capture the best of NASCAR. His is another reminder of just how difficult winning can be.
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