Entering the 2023 season, Ryan Blaney had been having a solid NASCAR Cup Series career. He was always a playoff contender, and always towards the top of the points standings. However, at times, it felt like Blaney underachieved at different points. All of that was put to bed after claiming the Championship in 2023. Or was it?
Blaney entered the Cup Series as a rookie in 2014, running just two races as a 20-year-old. He entered the sport with name recognition, as he is the son of Dave Blaney, who put together a 17-year Cup Series career. Dave was good, but never challenged for championships and there was a feeling that his son Ryan would have an opportunity to far surpass what his father accomplished in the sport.
After his entry into the series, Blaney would run a partial schedule with the Wood Brothers, completing 16 of the 36 races. While inconsistent, he showed some flashes which included a top-five finish. That partial season earned Blaney the opportunity to run full-time with that same Wood Brothers team.
His first full season in the Cup Series was impressive, as despite running with a team that is not traditionally a power, Blaney finished all but two races and showed he could find good finishes and take care of his equipment. His next season with the Wood Brothers provided another step in his development. For one, he won his first career race, that coming at Pocono. Additionally, he made his way into the playoffs, finishing the season in the top ten of the standings. That success led Blaney to a big promotion, going from the Wood Brothers to their close partners and the powerhouse Penske team.
Blaney’s move to Penske did provide an improvement in performance. His average finish, top fives, and top tens all saw a jump. However, his career hit a bit of a plateau throughout this three-year stretch. He won just one race in each season, and always finished the playoffs in the top ten, but never better than seventh.
2021 felt like Blaney’s breakout season at times. He broke through for three race wins and seemed primed for a playoff run toward the championship. However, he was once again eliminated in the round of eight and only finished seventh overall. His 2022 season was consistent in points, but he went without a race win for the first time in seven years.
Throughout the 2023 season, it felt like another typical Blaney season in some regards. He did secure a win in the middle of the season at Charlotte. However, he somewhat limped into the playoffs. This time, though, Blaney took off during playoff time. He barely survived into the round of 12, but won races at Talladega and Martinsville to stay alive in each round.
Then, it finally happened. Blaney won the championship by being the top playoff finisher at Phoenix. It was a realization of the talent that many thought he had all along.
And now, the questions about consistency arise. Plenty will point to the playoff format, and how it allows for flukey results. Some might suggest that Blaney really just had one good month, and did not prove a whole lot in winning a title.
I am not one of those people. I think Ryan Blaney is set to build off of his championship momentum. He has taken a ton of pressure off of himself. That allows a driver and team to focus more time and energy on the goals at hand. He knows he does not have to answer the questions about under-achieving, and certainly does not have any job security questions.
My bold prediction is that Blaney actually wins more races this year than he did last year as the champion.
Penske has now won championships in back-to-back seasons and seems to have plenty of momentum. Ryan Blaney will have to have a good season to prove his staying power among the sport’s top drivers. However, I think his career is only getting started and that he is here to stay.
Dawson Eiserloh is the co-host of “RP3, D-Loh & Meche” which is broadcast weekdays (11-1) on ESPN 103.7 Lafayette and 104.1 Lake Charles — Southwest Louisiana’s Sports Station.