He is a rookie driving one of the more recognizable cars on NASCAR’s Cup circuit, for one of the sport’s iconic teams. His father was a top driver in another era. If his season’s trajectory continues at this pace, he might well find himself competing for a championship in the fall. A much-anticipated victory would make a berth in the postseason academic.
No, he’s not Chase Elliott. He’s Ryan Blaney.
Blaney has plenty in common with Elliott, another member of this season’s Cup rookie class, both of whom will drive in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway:
▪ Blaney drives the Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Ford, a car that has also been piloted by racing legends that include David Pearson, Fireball Roberts, A.J. Foyt, Junior Johnson and Neil Bonnett. Elliott took over Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 Chevy for hall-of-fame bound Jeff Gordon, who retired after last season.
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▪ Blaney’s dad Dave had a long, distinguished racing career, not only in NASCAR but as a sprint car driver. Elliott’s dad Bill was just inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Those guys have a lot of capability, but the further that we go into the year, the more they will be judged by not having won, not how bright their future actually is.
Now, Ryan Blaney, 22, and Chase Elliott, 20, also have something else they can share and pursue: they’re both among five winless drivers who, because they are in the top 16 in the points standings, are in position to qualify for the Chase.
Blaney, though, doesn’t want to rely on points.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to points,” said Blaney, who is 15th in the standings (Elliott is a more-secure eighth). “We go out and try to win every single race. That’s the mindset we have. The rest of it will figure itself out. We’re focused on wins. We’re not going to be conservative.”
Blaney, who grew up in High Point, has six top-10 finishes, with a season- and career-best fifth place at Kansas in May. So he’s been close.
“I’m not going to back out of a situation where I think I can win a race just to points race right now,” Blaney said. “I want to go win a race, so I don’t really give that side too much thought.”
The Wood Brothers are an open team and are missing out on several advantages that charter teams have.
But as the summer progresses and the Chase nears, the pressure to win will only grow. Until Brad Keselowski won last week at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway, six different drivers had won six consecutive races, rapidly closing the window on the Chase for those who have yet to win.
That’s a mental challenge the rookies will soon be facing.
“I think those two (Blaney and Elliott) have definitely shown great competitiveness,” said Kevin Harvick, who is on the pole Saturday. “They have been very successful in the divisions that they have won in and run in before, which is what sets them apart from most of the other people that move up.
“(But) you see those younger guys do really good and then the pressure keeps building. The more you don’t win, the pressure just keeps building on, ‘When are you going to win, why haven’t you won?’ You build all this hype around the young guys and then they don’t win and it almost shuts them down at the end of the first year and into the second year. Those guys have a lot of capability, but the further that we go into the year, the more they will be judged by not having won, not how bright their future actually is.”
6 Top-10 finishes by Ryan Blaney this season
A factor separating Blaney from Elliott is the Woods’ status as an “open” team. Beginning this season, NASCAR began a “charter” system, with select teams essentially becoming franchises in the Cup series. The 36 charter teams are guaranteed a spot in each 40-car race and are guaranteed a certain amount of income each season. Wood Brothers Racing, which returned to the sport fulltime this season for the first time since 2008, wasn’t granted a charter. When more than four open teams are entered in a race, Blaney has to qualify his way into the event.
Blaney’s performance so far would suggest the Woods are doing fine as an open team. He’s easily made every race, and started as high as fifth at Michigan.
“They’re still the Wood brothers and they still only have one car, and there are some limitations that come with that,” said Brad Keselowski, whose Team Penske has an alliance with Wood Brothers Racing. “Ryan has really carried them to a whole other level in terms of being a consistent competitor to having quality finishes and quality runs.”
Said Blaney: “Being an open team doesn’t bother me one bit. I know there was a bunch of talk at the beginning of the year and it was made to be a big deal. I don’t see it affecting us at all. It’s kind of a title you wish you had, but it hasn’t hurt us yet and I don’t think it’s going to hurt us in the future.”
It looks like a bright future for Blaney, as well as Elliott.
“They are going to be stars,” said Harvick.
NASCAR’s rookie class