Check off another unique winner for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. Ryan Blaney emerged as a surprise victor at Atlanta Motor Speedway, capturing the fifth win of his career in dramatic fashion. Despite a dominating performance from Kyle Larson, who led 269 of 325 laps, Blaney was the one who took the trophy and the checkered flag, the latter of which he presented to a young fan.
In a season that’s featured more than a few shocking finishes, Sunday’s race (March 21) continued the pattern. Nobody had been able to touch Larson on long runs, at least until the No. 12 ran down the No. 5 in the closing laps. What caused such a dominant car to fall off so suddenly? Over the next week, many fans will doubtlessly point to Larson’s struggle to pass Joey Logano. The thought of one of Blaney’s teammates obstructing the progress of the leader is a logical explanation for why Larson could not hold on to the top spot.
However, when Larson explained what happened at the end of the race, it is notable that Logano’s name did not come up at all.
“I think [Blaney] just got a lot better there, [in] that last stage,” Larson said. “It kind of changed up my flow of the race a little bit. I could get out to such a big lead, and then I could take care of my stuff and run the bottom. It was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires.
“He was fast there and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the racetrack and just use my stuff up. And then he was just a lot better than me late in the run.”
Larson’s comments reflect an awareness of how his own car responded to changing track conditions. Early in the race, it did not matter where Larson ran on the track because his car had the most speed. But by the end, when Blaney could match his pace, Larson was forced to find a balance between saving his tires and managing the gap back to Blaney. The fact that Larson never mentions Logano suggests he knew the right balance of speed and grip wasn’t being achieved to stay ahead of Blaney, regardless of the lapped traffic encountered.
Blaney may not have been faster than Larson for most of the race, but he did a better job managing the final run. That has become a common theme among Blaney’s wins: get in position in the closing laps, then do whatever it takes to secure the victory. As his Cup Series career has progressed, the Team Penske driver has had the benefit and misfortune of having highly-regarded teammates like Logano and Brad Keselowski. Both of them are champions who regularly win races and are generally reliable drivers in clutch situations.
Blaney’s comparative lack of wins and deep playoff runs make it look like the young driver isn’t living up to the level of his veteran teammates. However, a closer look shows he’s pulled off some clutch performances on his own. Blaney’s first win, at Pocono Raceway in 2017, required running down Kyle Busch and holding off a late charge from Kevin Harvick. Harvick hounded Blaney all the way to the checkered flag, but he never made a winning pass.
Blaney also holds a pair of wins at Talladega Superspeedway. Amazingly, his margin of victory in both races is .007 seconds. In the chaotic world of superspeedway racing, it is remarkable that he was able to win back-to-back Talladega races by such thin margins.
And don’t forget about Blaney’s thrilling win at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in 2018. Yes, Blaney caught a lucky break when Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson spun each other out on the last lap. But Blaney did an excellent job to put himself in position to steal the win. The No. 12 car took some damage and lost track position in that race’s infamous turn 1 restart crash. It was not a given that Blaney would be the one to capitalize if the leaders ran into trouble.
If Blaney has let a few wins get away in his career, it is because circumstances, sometimes self-inflicted, have taken him out of contention before the decisive moment of the race. Blaney’s battle with Larson on Sunday was reminiscent of an incident they had at Kansas Speedway in the spring of 2018. While racing in the top five, Blaney and Larson sideswiped each other on the frontstretch, cutting Larson’s tire and sending Blaney into the wall. Blaney had led 54 laps that evening, but the crash knocked him out of the race and prevented him from challenging for the win.
Similar issues dogged Blaney last year. A cut tire at Auto Club Speedway destroyed any hope he had of challenging Alex Bowman for the win. At Bristol Motor Speedway in May, Blaney led 60 of the first 200 laps but finished last after spinning out and getting hit by another car. Despite holding a top five position in overall points for most of the regular season, Blaney did not advance out of the Round of 16. If he had been able to stockpile some more playoff points from good results in the regular season, things could have been different.
Perhaps Blaney’s Atlanta victory can put the No. 12 team on the right direction for the 2021 playoffs. Just like his Pocono win, the young driver showed cageyness and determination in the closing laps to score a surprising victory.
For a driver who gets measured against his teammates too often, Blaney should now get some accolades for this win. Chalking the victory up to a teammate blocking the leader is giving Logano too much credit. Blaney is an integral part of Team Penske’s NASCAR success, and he proved it with another clutch performance on Sunday.