AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Blaney is no stranger to screen time, with cameos across hit movies to television series.
But never has he stood on a stage as grand as he did Sunday night at Phoenix Raceway, hoisting the Bill France Cup as the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Champion.
The 29-year-old offered the best performance of his career in the Arizona desert when the moment mattered most. Vocal frustration about his competitors rang through his radio waves. Physical gestures — with both hand and car — shared the sentiment. But the climax of Sunday’s made-for-Hollywood movie was set through a phenomenal battle with Kyle Larson, one of motorsports’ best, going door-to-door and trading positions lap after lap with stock-car glory at their fingertips.
And when the checkered flag fell, no star was shining quite as brightly as Blaney.
“I think his limits are the sky, to be honest with you,” team owner Roger Penske said. “He gets in that class with (former IndyCar driver Rick) Mears. He’s a soft-spoken guy, really, but when he gets behind the wheel, like Joey (Logano), when he puts his hat on, don’t get in his way. I think he showed that today.”
“He’s only getting better and better. He’s got the confidence. He’s a leader. He’s a winner and a champion. Once you have that — it’s so hard to get there. I don’t think any of us realize him personally in the last 20 or 30 laps when he had to pass a couple of guys to get the championship; that shows his true mettle. He’s got a long way to go, a long way.”
The spotlight is not new for Blaney, who has appeared in guest roles in silver-screen hits like “Logan Lucky” and “Cars 3” in addition to television shows like “Taken,” “Magnum P.I.” and Netflix sitcom “The Crew.”
That stems from a continuation of decisions he has made previously to grow his brand while also growing NASCAR. A championship may provide more potential to do more of both.
“I’m excited to have those opportunities. I really look forward to facing them head-on,” Blaney said. “I feel like if you get the privilege to be a champion of your sport, it is part of your job to promote your sport and do the best you can to be the best champion that you can.”
“I’ll be honest with you; that’s a responsibility I really haven’t thought about yet. I think that’s going to kind of dawn on me in the following days. I think it’s part of your job to kind of, hey, embrace it, push the sport. You have this awesome platform now to where you’ve done something incredible; use that, promote the sport.”
“I’m excited to see what happens this offseason, see what comes up, to where you’re not only growing yourself, you are growing the sport of NASCAR as well. Someone asked me earlier (about) the Netflix deal that’s happening right now. I’ve worked with them a lot through the playoffs. They’ve got a lot of inside stuff. I think that’s another big thing of promoting the sport in a positive way to a certain audience or a brand-new audience.”
Blaney and a number of his contemporaries — Larson, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher, among others — were part of the sport’s concentrated push to bring younger faces to the forefront some five years ago, with superstars like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and other legends who retired in the span of a couple of years.
It was early in each driver’s Cup career, unproven yet at the sport’s highest levels despite varying levels of high-powered success in prior racing ventures.
“Some guys got a little hurt about that,” Blaney reflected Sunday.
Circumstances have proven those premonitions correct. Blaney, Larson and Elliott have combined to win three of the last four NASCAR Cup Series championships, dating back to Elliott’s triumph in 2020. Byron joined Blaney, Larson and 28-year-old Christopher Bell in the Championship 4. Buescher and Wallace both fought into the playoffs this season, with Buescher advancing to the Round of 8 and Wallace to the Round of 12.
In five years’ time, their potential is being realized under the brightest of lights, highlighted now by Blaney’s championship.
“It’s nice that these younger drivers, the newer guys, are succeeding in their own way and being able to have championships and wins,” Blaney said. “For a fan base to grow up with that driver in their mid- or late-20s, it’s something I think people can latch onto.”
“Obviously, now it’s easy for me to look back at that marketing campaign; they knew what they were doing (smiling). But you never know how it’s going to work.”
Turns out it’s working quite well.
The oldest of the last three champions is Logano, Blaney’s 33-year-old Team Penske teammate who claimed his second Cup title a season ago. Blaney is 29, Larson 31 and Elliott 27.
What’s next is to see whether Blaney can transcend the NASCAR space as few others before him have, like Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. Elliott is the five-time defending Most Popular Driver, but can Blaney’s hot hand translate to more screen time? Only time can tell — but optimism is high after Championship No. 1.