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NASCAR champion Ryan Blaney seeks elusive Daytona 500 win

NASCAR champion Ryan Blaney seeks elusive Daytona 500 win

DAYTONA BEACH — When Ryan Blaney says he’s driven into the Daytona International infield more times than he can recall, NASCAR’s reigning Cup Series champion isn’t exaggerating.

Earlier this week, he came through Turn 1 concrete’s underpass as he had as an infant decades earlier. This time Blaney’s hands were on the steering wheel, yet he retained his child-like sense of bewilderment.

“I’ve been in awe of this place every time I drive through the tunnel ever since I was born,” he said. “It hasn’t changed 30 years later.”

Blaney hopes his latest visit ends with a win during Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Even the best drivers aren’t destined to win the Great American race. Yet, Blaney was destined to drive in it.

Once veteran driver Dave Blaney’s only son was able to appreciate the sport’s sights, sounds and significance of his surroundings, he was sold.

“As a kid, I just wanted to do what my dad did,” Ryan Blaney said. “I tried other sports, but I came to the realization that I’m a very short kid and I will never make it in any other stick-and-ball sport. I’m a scrawny little kid, so racing seems good and I have a lot of opportunities and I’m OK with it.

“It’s what I always wanted to be, so I’m super lucky it came true.”

Blaney’s storybook rise and natural talent is rooted in the success on Ohio’s dirt tracks by his father, uncle Dale and grandfather Lou.

Dave Blaney’s dominance in sprint car racing during the 1980s and ’90s segued into a long NASCAR career. But during 14 seasons as a full-time Cup Series driver (2000-13) he was winless in 473 starts — 13 in the Daytona 500.

Along the way, Blaney encouraged his son’s passion for the sport and instilled the work ethic required to succeed. Blaney contended enough to earn more than $39 million and provide Ryan opportunities he’d never had.

“When you look back at Dave’s career, I don’t know that he really had the opportunity that Ryan has been given,” said Larry McReynolds, a former Daytona 500-winning crew chief and current analyst on Fox Sports. “We’ve heard Kevin Harvick say many times, you can’t drive a slow car fast. I don’t know that Dave ever was in a top-notch ride like Ryan has had most of his Cup Series career.”

Ryan Blaney came up through the ranks from quarter midget to Bandleros, Legends and late model cars and was a regular around the garage with his father.

“I remember when Ryan got his driver’s permit and he drove into the race track,” 21-time Cup Series winner Jeff Burton told the Orlando Sentinel. “I looked up, ‘What the heck are you doing driving?’ So, I watched Ryan when he was 13-ish, racing with this dad.

“He reminded a lot of his dad — the mannerisms, quiet, understated, but fast.”

Blaney’s fast, fearless style caught the eye of legendary team owner Roger Penske, a fellow Ohioan who dominated IndyCar racing before excelling in NASCAR.

Blaney became his third Cup Series champion, joining former Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski (2012) and longtime member Joey Logano (’18, ’22). On Sunday, Blaney looks to become Penske’s fourth Daytona 500 champion, joining Ryan Newman (’08), Logano (’15) and Austin Cindric (’22).

Blaney, the winner of Daytona’s 2021 summer race, has had his chances to win his sport’s premiere event.

Most famously and regrettably, he bumped Newman, the race leader then racing for Jack Roush, on the homestretch to cause a horrific crash. Newman’s car rolled multiple times and he ended up hospitalized.

“I look back and it’s easy to Monday quarterback the thing and be like, ‘We’ll just make a different move,’” Blaney said Wednesday. “It’s hard to make those decisions in that moment. You’re trying to process a million thoughts in a millisecond and you have no time to think about them, process them, apply them. Sometimes you make the wrong choice.

“Obviously, I would have liked to have done something different in 2020.”

Blaney remains frustrated by his runner-up finish in 2017 to Kurt Busch. Competitors were low on fuel and many cars, including Busch’s No. 41, were held together by duct-tape following crashes.

“I couldn’t have done anything different,” Blaney said. “I couldn’t get there.”

In 2022, he pushed teammate Cindric following a restart and ultimately to victory as Blaney finished fourth.

“I thought I waited until the correct moment to make sure one of us won the race,” he said. “But I just wish I would have made a different move.”

Blaney studied his miscues and close calls to capitalize in 2023 with three wins — two of them to go with two runner-up finishes during the playoffs.

The championship was popular among friends and foes around the garage.

Ross Chastian and Blaney became friends racing the Truck Series in 2013-14, but followed different career trajectories from there. Chastain’s breakthrough, two-win 2022 season was five years after Blaney first of seven Cup Series victories.

In the 2023 season finale at Phoenix, Chastain held off Blaney for his fourth win.

“I watched him get to the Cup Series and win races while I was still trying to kind of find my way,” Chastain said. “It took me a whole lot longer. To fight at Phoenix the way we were able to was really, really neat for me.”

Meanwhile, Kyle Larson said he isn’t close to Blaney. But as a sprint car team owner and driver Larson has utmost respect for the family and even drove in races with Dave and Dale.

“The Blaney name is probably one of the most successful last names in auto racing, at least in America,” Larson said. “I was happy for him to win that championship because it just adds to the Blaney legacy.”

Blaney now aims to add the sport’s ultimate prize and make the ultimate trip at the Daytona International Speedway … to Victory Lane.

“That’s the dream deal,” he said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com.