It’s not much, but that’s all Ryan Blaney has needed to win at Talladega Superspeedway.
And not just once.
Blaney and the Cup Series return to Talladega this weekend. Unlike the last two seasons, Blaney won’t arrive in Alabama winless. If he takes the checkered flag Sunday, no matter the margin, it will be the Team Penske driver’s second win of 2021.
“I think it’s been a pretty good start to our year, kind of take away the first three races,” Blaney said this week. “They were kind of unfortunate for us, but, other than that, I feel like we’ve made a really strong showing and getting a win early in the year is obviously nice, so I think the 12 group is in a really good spot right now.”
Following his victory at Atlanta in March, he has finishes of eighth (Bristol dirt), 11th (Martinsville) and 11th (Richmond).
Blaney knows his team has “some things we’ve got to clean up,” specifically pit road miscues like the one that cost him a win at Martinsville after he claimed both stage wins.
“As we get going, you figure out the places you can improve at and you just sit down and figure that out, so I think the 12 group is doing real good right now,” Blaney said. “I think Penske as a whole is running strong. … There are a couple teams that are really fast — Hendrick and Gibbs are really fast right now — so we have to keep working hard to stay with those guys and Stewart-Haas will get it figured out here and they’ll be strong once again, so you’ve always got to stay on top of your game.”
With his Talladega wins making up two of his five Cup victories, superspeedways represent Blaney’s most successful track type. He’s led 108 laps in his last three ‘Dega starts.
If Blaney were to win Sunday, he’d be the first driver to win at Talladega in three consecutive seasons since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in four straight seasons (2001-04).
Besides fast cars being “obviously a huge help,” what’s been the key to his Talladega success?
“Communication between spotter and driver is really good,” Blaney said. “I mean you’ve got to pepper in a little bit of luck too. … You can get tore up and it’s none of your doing. You’re just riding around there and someone slips up a little bit and you’re in a 15-car pileup. All of those things mixed together as far as being successful at Talladega and trying to find yourself in the right spot at the right time and if you do find yourself at the end of these races of capitalizing on it, and that goes back to the driver/spotter combination, so I think it’s different skills at different points of the races … and trying to make the most of the situation.”
Despite the possibility of the notorious “Big One,” which eliminated him from this year’s Daytona 500, Blaney said “I don’t really get stressed when” NASCAR goes superspeedway racing.
“You go into that race knowing what it is, knowing that there’s a lot of things that are out of your control that can happen to you,” Blaney said. “You just learn to deal with it and you make the best of the situation. I don’t think about an accident that could happen at any moment throughout the race. If you’re thinking about that, then your mind is somewhere else. …
“I feel like when you’re young and it’s your first little bit of Cup speedway racing, you’re really aggressive. I feel like you can be really aggressive. I know that I was, for sure, but in a different way, I’m aggressive nowadays too. But you go about it in a different way. It’s kind of hard to explain, but maybe not do dumb moves like a young person.”
Speaking of young, but not dumb, Sunday’s race will feature the first Cup Series start of Harrison Burton. Driving the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing, the 20-year-old Burton (who competes full-time in the Xfinity Series) will be the first driver born in the 21st century to compete in a Cup Series race.
Having made his first Talladega start in Cup in 2014, what does Blaney think will be in store for Burton?
“I remember it happens really fast, a lot faster than (Xfinity or Trucks),” Blaney said. “Especially the package now. (With) the package now, things happen really fast. The runs are huge. You can’t block some of these runs that come. … Things happen really quickly and you can’t really prepare for that, you just have to experience it.”