During the off-season, Ryan Blaney expressed concern over being the third Team Penske driver. As changes get made to lineups and owners are constantly under pressure to find the ‘next best thing’ being low man on the totem pole is nerve racking.
There is only one way to deal with that: climb up the totem pole.
Blaney started clawing his way skyward at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week and most likely would have won the Pennzoil 400 if not for a late-race caution that shuffled the field and left the leader vulnerable. It was bittersweet that his teammate Joey Logano took the victory because the pressure within the organization remains.
During the race Blaney was just as fixated about how he was being raced by Kevin Harvick as he was by Logano. The competitive spirit was not diminished just because the same man signs both paychecks. Beating Logano and Brad Keselowski is just as important as beating Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, or any of the other 30+ drivers in the field.
Every racer hits a critical point in their career. In his fifth full season at the Cup level and third with Penske it is time to move up a level in consideration. There is a lot of shifting below Blaney. Six rookie contenders this season is an ever-present reminder of how quickly things change at this level; so is the fact that only one of last year’s crop of Cup freshmen is still around in 2020.
But things don’t change as quickly at the top. For the past several years Harvick, Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. have been considered the Big 3. There are another half dozen or so drivers who can challenge them to be part of the championship. Blaney has not been one of them consistently enough to be a second-tier driver. And he needs to be because Logano and Keselowski are.
At Vegas last week, Blaney was the strongest of the Penske drivers. He needs to do that again at Auto Club this week.
Team Penske is just as strong on this 2-mile track as they are at Vegas. Logano and Keselowski both have active streaks of top-fives of three or more races. With the recent crew chief swap, those notes are certainly getting passed around and the success was noticeable last week when all of them contended for a top-five at some point during the races.
Blaney has been successful on this track in his own right. He finished ninth or better in his last three starts. Last year he was fifth in the Auto Club 400, which is part of a five-race streak of top-10s on 2-mile tracks. If not for an unsuccessful strategy call in Michigan 2, he would have swept the top 10 on this track type in each of the last two years. All three of the Penske drivers chose the wrong strategy that day, however; as did the majority of the top runners in that race. Blaney was running fifth with one lap remaining. He coasted across the line 24th.
Last week Blaney was a few laps away from his fourth career win. He got banged up on the restart and finished 11th. Auto Club is a little more forgiving than Vegas. The track is wide and features multiple grooves that will allow drivers to get away from one another even in the frenetic laps following a caution.
Blaney could challenge for the win again this week. If he misses, his odds of finishing in the top-10 are very, very good.
Career Average Finish at Auto Club: 14.3 in 4 starts (ranked eighth)
2019 Auto Club 400: 5
2018 Auto Club 400: 8
2019 Consumers Energy 400 (Michigan 1): 9
2019 Firekeepers Casino 400 (Michigan 2): 24