Last week, in preparation for the impending Super Bowl (of Motorsports), we covered the ins and outs of a NASCAR season, the convoluted and labyrinthine rules of racing’s playoff format, and how over the next four weeks I would be profiling each of the four drivers that I predict will be racing for the Monster Energy Cup championship come November.
This week, we dive in, starting with a young driver whom NASCAR will hang a good chunk of its future hopes on. Luckily for NASCAR, Ryan Blaney has enough poise off the track—and plenty of moxie on it—to push through the playoffs and make a run for the Cup at Homestead this November.
The High Point native spent the past few race seasons with one of NASCAR’s most revered and historical rides, the Wood Brothers’ red and white 21 machine, which was most famously piloted by NASCAR royalty David Pearson in the seventies. After signing a new contract at the end of last season with one of racing’s banner organizations, Penske, Blaney now finds himself behind the wheel of yet another of one of NASCAR’s most decorated teams.
Blaney’s migration to his new team makes sense. A longstanding truism about the Wood Brothers is that their vaunted level of prestige is directly proportional to their underwhelming results. With Penske, Blaney graduates into a high-performance, detail-heavy operation that shares in common much of the gear, tactics, and personnel of his previous organization. The driver may find himself under a new banner, in a new firesuit, but he’ll recognize most of the names and faces around the garage.
As he showed in his first two Cup years, Blaney is the kind of driver who is cool, calm, and collected both on and off the track. More a strategist in the vein of Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin than a pure bulldog driver a la Kyle Busch or Kyle Larson, Blaney relies on playing race day like a game of chess rather than a boxing match.
I expect Blaney’s 2018 season to resemble Jimmie Johnson’s career of late. That is to say, Blaney will run the 12 car somewhere near the top of the pack week to week, mostly finishing at the lower end of the top ten but squeaking out a few wins during the regular season, thus qualifying him for the playoffs. He’ll start the playoffs somewhere around sixth or seventh place and, once the knockout rounds commence, he’ll keep his nose clean enough and his points high enough that he’ll stay just about the cut line. Much like last season’s Brad Keselowski (his new teammate at Penske), Blaney will be the quietest and least dominant member of the final four.
A deep playoff run would not only be good for Blaney and the Penske organization, but NASCAR would also reap the benefits as well. Blaney is young and good-looking, as cool as the other side of the pillow, social media savvy, and very, very brand conscious. Having appeared on film in Logan Lucky, lent his voice for the character of Ryan “Inside” Laney in the Pixar megahit Cars 3, and created and hosted his own popular podcast, Blaney realizes that the fan in 2018 wants to see what’s under the helmet just as much as they want to see the cars tear around the track every Sunday. For a sport threatened by a very real fan exodus, Ryan Blaney is exactly the sort of young personality that NASCAR desperately needs right now.