NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Is 2021 a Career-Defining Year for Ryan Blaney?

At Michigan International Speedway on Sunday (Aug. 22), it was a Ford vs. Chevrolet duel to the finish, as you would expect it to be an hour outside of The Motor City.

Perhaps more telling, it was perhaps a glimpse into the future of what rivalries will look like in the sport, with Ryan Blaney holding off Hendrick Motorsports’ duo of William Byron and Kyle Larson. The second win of the season may have been Blaney’s most impressive to date.

Does this triumph set the stage for Blaney to take the step to the next level of his career? Vito Pugliese and Clayton Caldwell debate.

Blaney Suddenly Ford’s Best Bet Against HMS and JGR Onslaught

Blaney’s sixth career Cup win at last weekend was not only notable, but a career defining win for a few reasons.

Not only did it mark his second victory of the season, it also marks the first multi-win season of his young career. The second win was also notable in that as with his first win of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he thwarted what had been a dominate performance by Larson, which was multiplied this time by the late-race speed of Byron as well. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, was his solidifying his position at Team Penske.

Let’s take a step back and look at Blaney’s career thus far in the Cup Series. The second-generation driver won his first race in 2017 with the Wood Brothers in his second full season of competition, beating Kevin Harvick by a scant 0.139 seconds at Pocono Raceway. It was a breakthrough victory against a veteran in the midst of a Championship 4 season and a tremendous triumph indeed. His other victories, though, didn’t quite carry the same weight.

The other three wins:

2018 Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL — won after Jimmie Johnson’s last gasp Larry Enticer-style “Just-Gonna-Send-It” plow job into the side of Martin Truex Jr. cleared the way for his second win in the final turns of the inaugural ROVAL race. Margin of Victory: 0.792 seconds

2019 Talladega Superspeedway: A fendering banging photo-finish over Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin to the tune of .007 seconds

2020 Talladega: A replay of 2019, another razor thin .007-second win as Erik Jones got hooked into the wall and Aric Almirola spun to the inside, barely edging out Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

So, four career wins heading into 2021, but two of them were at Talladega on late-race restarts, with cars wrecking and banging against each other. Yeah, I know, Dom, “It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile …” but compared to his other Penske teammates, three out of four wins were ones where luck played a sizeable role – and kind of put into question why Matt DiBenedetto is always on such a shorter leash comparatively.

That said, 2021 has been a different story. Larson has been the dominant driver of 2021, having a career-re-defining season himself. Having won five races so far, with just as many runner-up finishes, he has eclipsed the one-or-none win years he had with Chip Ganassi Racing, and winning at tracks not named Michigan or Richmond Raceway.

Larson was cruising to a win in Atlanta when Blaney flat-out ran him down over a long green-flag run and beat him. At Michigan, a different scenario set up where he had to hold off Blaney and Byron over the final few laps, both trying different lines and trying to set up a slingshot at the end, but Blaney was able to fend off the challenger for his sixth win – this one a whopping 0.077 second margin of victory.

There’s also the matter of the changing dynamic at Team Penske. Brad Keselowski, who has spent over a decade at Penske and brought The Captain his first Cup championship, is leaving to enter a new role as part owner with Roush Fenway Racing in 2022.

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Zach’s Turn: Team Penske in Midst of Massive Upheaval

Replacing Keselowski is the son of Team Penske President Tim Cindric, Austin Cindric. While not a coach’s kid promotion by any means, as Austin is the defending Xfinity Series champion at just 23 years old, there is a family connection here that needs to at least be acknowledged and how it could affect things.

Joey Logano is now the elder statesman at Penske at the ripe, old age of 31. The No. 21 Wood Brothers team is bringing aboard Harrison Burton, who is just 20 years old. Blaney will be 28 and entering his seventh season in 2022, making him a legitimate seasoned veteran now. Being a Penske-affiliated driver for this long tends to carry some expectations along with it. While he hasn’t been underwhelming thus far, one would expect the No. 12 team to have put up numbers a bit closer to their corporate teammates in the Nos. 2 and 22 thus far, and in a bit more convincing fashion.

This past weekend, I think, was the start of that, and a sign of things to come not only for the rest of the season for YRB, but in the years to come. – Vito Pugliese

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NASCAR Stat Sheet: Ryan Blaney Carries Momentum to Michigan Win

Maybe Next Year

Before I give my take, I want to say Blaney is a great racecar driver. I believe he has all the skills in the garage to win races when presented with the right opportunity. However, this question relates to the 2021 season and if this will be his breakout season.

When I think of breakout seasons, I think of Chase Elliott’s 2018 season. Elliott only won three races that season but had an amazing playoff run which no one expected. Blaney’s Cup career has been an interesting one so far. He has shown flashes of brilliance but when you look at this career, 2021 is the first time he’s won multiple races in a season. He’s also never had a deep run into the playoffs where he’s been a serious threat for the championship.

Also, 2021 has been dominated by Chevrolet, particularly Chevrolets that come out of the Hendrick Motorsports shop or have an association with that organization. Larson has been the best driver in the Cup Series in 2021, far and away. He has five wins this season and if luck had played out different in some other events, he would have a few more.

Larson has 12 top-three finishes on the season in 25 races. That’s almost half of the races this season that he has finished in the top three. He currently leads the point standings and if the playoffs started today, would be given the 15-point bonus for winning the regular season title to go along with 37 additional playoff points he’s earned. Every year or two, one driver comes out and has a monster season where they completely dominate. Any way you slice, Larson has been dominate this season.

In the races Larson hasn’t won, his teammates have helped pick up the slack. In the 20 races Larson hasn’t won, his teammates have won six of them. Chase Elliott has won twice, Alex Bowman has won three times and Byron has won once. Some may also add Kurt Busch to that list after his July win at Atlanta. Chip Ganassi Racing uses Hendrick Motorsports engines and has a close relationship with the team. That’s a combined seven victories for the other Hendrick-affiliated cars.

If you are doing the math, that’s 13 races in which a Hendrick-powered or Hendrick-affiliated car has found victory lane this year through 25 races. That’s over half the races this season. And with no practice for the rest of the season, I believe their dominance will continue.

So what does this have to do with Blaney you ask?

Well, if 2021 was going to be Blaney’s breakout year, he would be driving for Hendrick, not a team that has struggled to find its footing for most of the year. Team Penske has just four victories this season, with three of them coming in the first 10 races of the season. In the last 15, Team Penske has just one win.

Keselowski has dropped from sixth to 10th in the point standings in the last 15 races. Logano has dropped from third to eighth in that same time period. Blaney himself has dropped from fifth to seventh. The only Team Penske driver that has improved his point standing in the last 10 races? Matt DiBenedetto, who has gone from 17th to 16th.

It’s not been a banner year for the organization, and for the most part, it has gotten worse as the season has gone on. Plus, Blaney’s crew chief Todd Gordon announced earlier in the season that the 2021 season will be his last on the pit box in the Cup Series.

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Ryan Blaney's Crew Chief Todd Gordon To Retire at Season's End

Having a lame duck crew chief is not ideal. Even with the new car coming in, you have to wonder what Gordon’s focus is going to be like knowing that he won’t be around next year. Plus, the men that he leads and look to him for guidance, know that he is not going to be there for the long term. That could have an effect on what goes on with the No. 12 team moving forward.

That’s why I don’t think Blaney will have his breakout year in 2021. There is too much distraction with that team and Hendrick Motorsports is the dominate team. I believe with the new car coming, teams won’t be doing much research and development with the current car to get it better as the season winds down. It would be a waste of money to do that so things won’t change all that much from what we see now, which would be a lot different than in years past.

Unfortunately for Blaney, he’ll have to look to 2022 for that breakout season. – Clayton Caldwell

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