By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for the top-30 drivers in the series leading into this weekend’s 60th running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: 2
Career Wins: 1
With the retirement of NASCAR’s most popular driver, many fans that cheered for the No. 88 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be seeking a new favorite to root for in 2018. Ryan Blaney could very well be the answer, as the 24-year-old goes above and beyond to give back to his fans. He also drives for one of the top teams in the series and already has a victory at the Cup level, last season at Pocono Raceway. Blaney also earned two poles and recorded 14 top-10 results with a ninth-place finish in the championship standings in 2017.
Blaney has been seen in several places away from the race track recently in an effort to grow the sport, including a guest appearance on NBC’s “Taken,” voicing the character Ryan “Inside” Laney in the movie “Cars 3” and a cameo role as a pizza delivery driver in the movie “Logan Lucky.”
“I would rather make other people happy than myself,” Blaney said during his media availability as part of the pre-season Charlotte Media Tour.
“If I have to sacrifice time, it’s just time. It really doesn’t mean much to me personally. I would rather do something meaningful for the sport than to go sit on my couch. I don’t feel like I am doing anything then and feel I could be more useful somewhere else. I can do that at night, and I can do that when I retire. I want to do as much as I can right now to make it work and make other people happy and make this thing the best it can.”
The 2018 season will see Blaney with a new number and a new team, although it shouldn’t feel much different for the third generation driver. Blaney moves over to the Team Penske No. 12 Ford after driving for Wood Brothers Racing the past two seasons. With Wood Brothers’ alliance with Team Penske – the team gets its chassis from Penske, as well as technical data – it shouldn’t be too much of a different feel for the young driver who has also driven for Penske in XFINITY Series competition with limited starts over the past five seasons. Jeremy Bullins, Blaney’s Cup crew chief from 2017, makes the move to Penske as well as the majority of the crew.
“To work with somebody in that position for that much of my career, that’s pretty big,” Blaney said of Bullins. “Plus you get a language and you get to know each other really well.”
“For some time now, we have wanted to bring Ryan in to run a third car for us, but things just needed to make sense from a timing and business perspective,” team owner Roger Penske said in a press release this past July. “We have been working on making this a reality, and 2018 is the right opportunity to make this move and return our organization to a three-car team.”
During the off-season, Blaney cut his hair and shaved his face, looking more in-line with the clean-cut image at Team Penske. Otherwise, it’s been business as usual for the driver who has his own podcast and during a recent test at Texas Motor Speedway spent his lunch eating pizza and interacting with the fans.
“I think we can bring pretty much a lot of the same culture,” said Blaney, mentioning that the transition should be seamless. “It’s a lot of the same people, and I don’t think we’ll change the way we kind of do things each weekend. You have to be able to have fun because it’s what racing was built on — just people and cars going fast.”
Blaney is one of just 29 drivers to win a race in each of NASCAR’s three major series, with four Truck and six XFINITY Series victories on his resume. With adding an additional car to the mix and the ongoing working relationship with 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, this year could be the year that Blaney breaks out and contends for the championship.
“It could be a defining year, for sure,” Blaney said. “The third year, you should be winning at least a couple of races a year in the equipment we’re in. Hopefully we can make that happen. I think it is going to be a big stepping stone.”