Daytona takeaways: Ryan Blaney no longer just ‘the third guy at Penske’ in breakout year

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Ask Ryan Blaney why he’s been assuming more accountability and responsibility this season, and the Team Penske driver naturally sounds like a leader.

“You’ve just got to do that; there’s a point you’ve got to get to when it’s time to step up,” Blaney said, several hours before he won his second consecutive Cup race for the first time during his six full seasons in NASCAR’s premier series. “I was sitting around being pretty much the third guy at Penske. Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano) winning more races than me each year (and) being in the final four. It’s like, ‘Man, we’ve got to step the program up.’ You just try to motivate yourself more to be better to take the leap up to be a leader and want to learn more.”

The narrative around the No. 12 Ford star’s breakout season continued to build Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, where Blaney notched his third victory of 2021. He will enter the playoff as the No. 2 seed behind Kyle Larson and with more regular-season wins than Logano and Keselowski combined.

With 24 playoff points, Blaney seems certain to avoid last year’s stunning first-round exit (which started with a “foolish penalty” for leaving weight in the car for prerace inspection), but it’s his demeanor that has crew chief Todd Gordon comparing his development with Joey Logano (whom he worked with from 2013-19). Gordon, who is leaving his role after the season, said after Blaney’s victories at Daytona and Michigan that he is seeing signs familiar to his 2018 title with Logano. “Ryan is growing into being a championship contender,” Gordon said.

In further evidence of his blossoming leadership, Blaney defers the credit to Gordon for his increased shop presence in working weekly to pore through race and track data with Penske engineers.

NASCAR Daytona takeaways
Ryan Blaney celebrates after his victory at Daytona International Speedway (Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports).

“Being a championship crew chief, he is really pulling information out of me and really wanting me to excel, so it’s kind of two sides,” Blaney said. “It’s not just me working harder, it’s Todd helping me out along the way, too. So it’s been cool to grow with him. But yeah, I’m just trying to make that effort. And I think next year it’s going to be even more with Brad moving on, and me and Joey being the senior guys over there. You want to be in that leadership role. I think we’re working toward that.”

Blaney’s recent surge (five top fives in six races) has coincided with the official announcement six weeks ago that Kesleowski is leaving Penske after 12 seasons.

It was that impending leadership void that Blaney, 27, identified as a leadership motivator – especially for next season when he and Logano, 31, will become de-facto mentors as Austin Cindric, 22, replaces Keselowski and Harrison Burton, 20, moves into the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Ford.

Making the championship round for the first time would do well for cementing Blaney’s credibility.

“You have to be a leader,” he said. “Definitely Brad is a leader (and) Joey. I think it’s time for me to step up and be that guy, too.”

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Other NASCAR takeaways from Daytona:

Keselowski isn’t the sentimental sort but conceded the emotions got to him as he pulled into the track for his last Daytona start with Team Penske.

“Week by week, it gets a little deeper for me,” said Keselowski, who delivered the first NASCAR Xfinity (2010) and Cup championship (’12) to team owner Roger Penske. “And I’m just trying to soak it all up.”

Did he have plans to address his No. 2 Ford team in a meaningful way before the playoffs begin?

“I had some great plans, and now with all the COVID stuff, it doesn’t look like those are based in reality,” he said. “But I’ll figure something out.”

Driver-team pairings with an expiration date typically don’t fare well, which is likely why Kurt Busch gathered his team for a first-round pep talk after qualifying for the playoffs with his July 11 victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Daytona takeaways
Kurt Busch (Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Cup team charters will be absorbed by Trackhouse Racing after the 2021 season. While the drivers’ futures are secure (Ross Chastain will move to Trackhouse; Busch is headed to 23XI Racing’s new second car), the outlook has been open-ended for many team members for the past two months.

“There’s been a mixup of ownership and selling the team, and it’s a different vibe,” Busch said. “I tried to rally everyone together after Atlanta and said, ‘Listen, let’s build the (playoff-opening) Darlington car to win. Bring everything you’ve got. Bring everything for Richmond and Bristol (the last two tracks in Round 1). Every racetrack, if we can have a car that we haven’t raced before and polish up on it, let’s do it. I know they’re investing everything they can into this final little bit while Ganassi is around.

“I don’t know the exact quantity of new (cars), but it’s just the effort all the way through. It’s that attention to detail and really focusing in on the race notes. Pit crew guys, my guys have been top-five average all year. We’re going to need that. In the playoffs you need your pit crew to gain you spots you can’t gain on track.”

Busch also is looking for a new spotter for next season as Tyler Green will be moving to Harrison Burton. Busch said he is looking for an experienced spotter who will be expected to attend Monday debriefs and take copious notes to help adapt to the NextGen car. It’s part of Busch’s expanded role at 23XI, where he won’t have an executive title but will be empowered to make personnel decisions.

“My phone is blowing up with congratulatory texts and emails, but there are so many that are looking for a job,” he said. “So many people want to be part of this now. That’s the next step for me that I have to embrace and digest it the right way. I’m not in ownership within the team, but I asked for a role to have a good influence with the program. So it’s filtering through a lot of quality people. No. 1 is my spotter, but at the same time, there are so many guys for other positions that I have to filter through, so that’s my Monday-Wednesday job.”

With Kurt Busch’s addition at 23XI Racing putting him in a Toyota for the first time, the Busch brothers will be in official weekly Cup debriefs together for the first time. They last worked in a similar capacity together when they shared an Xfinity car for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the 2012 season.

“Kyle and I now go back and forth pretty hard on our banter,” Kurt said. “Just get ready for those Monday morning meetings at Gibbs. I don’t know if all the people in the room are going to be ready for two Busches. It’ll be fun. There’ll be a lot to filter through with the NextGen car.”

Kyle Busch said he’s joked with team owner Joe Gibbs about barring his older brother from the weekly Toyota team meetings at JGR’s Huntersville, North Carolina, shop. “Hopefully, (Kurt) just has to call in and, we can put him on mute when we need to,” Kyle cracked.

Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell addressed questions in recent weeks about whether Front Row Motorsports will keep its charters for the 2021 season.

“I don’t think there’ll be any charters sold,” said McDowell, who starred in a national ad campaign for the first time after winning the biggest race of the season. “(Front Row Motorsports owner) Bob Jenkins has been extremely loyal to me and a good friend. They’ve told me I’ll be racing full time next year. What that looks like, I’m not exactly sure, but I feel good about my spot at Front Row. I feel good about what we’ve built and what we’re doing.

“I think there are a lot of things that still have to come together, but that’s not abnormal for us to be in this spot not knowing. It usually comes together pretty late for us in general. I don’t see it being any different than this year where we know this early.”

Daytona takeaways: Ryan Blaney no longer just ‘the third guy at Penske’ in breakout year originally appeared on NBCSports.com