NASCAR: Ryan Blaney’s most important win yet?

Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Ryan Blaney’s victory in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series season was exactly what he needed but hadn’t yet gotten with Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney made the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season his fifth consecutive season with a victory by winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Blaney made a late pass on Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who had led 269 of the first 316 laps of the 325-lap race around the four-turn, 1.54-mile (2.478-kilometer) oval in Hampton, Georgia and went on to win by 2.083 seconds, giving Team Penske their first win of the 2021 season.

But this win stands above any of the others earned by the driver of the #12 Ford. In fact, this was the win for which he had been waiting for several years.

This win was Blaney’s fifth Cup Series win and fourth as a Team Penske driver.

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The 27-year-old has won one race per year since 2017, and he began driving for Roger Penske’s organization in 2018. However, look at how his other wins have come.

With all things considered, his only, for lack of a better word, “regular” win came at Pocono Raceway in June 2017 when he was driving for Wood Brothers Racing. And even in that race, he led only the final 10 laps. With Team Penske, he had three wins entering the 2021 season.

Blaney won the inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval in October of 2018, but he needed Jimmie Johnson to wreck Martin Truex Jr. in the final turn trying to take the race lead. Blaney emerged from nowhere to take the checkered flag.

His other two wins are both 0.007-second wins at Talladega Superspeedway, often considered a “wild card” race track due to the pack racing and close finishes it produces. He beat Ryan Newman in a photo finish at in October 2019, and he beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in another photo finish last June.

He didn’t lead the entire final lap in any one of those three races, and he only led the penultimate lap in the race where he beat Newman to the finish line.

We spoke to Blaney last August about lacking a “regular” win with Team Penske through more than two and a half seasons with the team, and he was candid about it.

“I think it’s yet to come,” he said. “Those [other wins] have been exciting finishes, and we’ve been fortunate to be on the good end of those finishes. But I want to win races by five or six seconds. Those are dominating days when you can do that. If you can start steadily winning races by a large amount, they really speak to your team.”

He may not have won Sunday’s race by five or six seconds, and he may have gotten beaten 269 to 25 by Larson in the laps led category, but considering how he had the dominant car on the long runs and was able to turn Larson’s 12-second lead in the second stage into a lead of only seven or eight seconds and how he was able to run him down and pull away from him at the end, this was the win he needed.

He earned the right to be in the position to win with a strong performance and a strong car, and he finally turned that into a win.

He has been in position to do so before in these kinds of races, but he simply hasn’t been able to close the door. Seven times in his Cup Series career, he has led at least 100 laps in a race, yet he has zero wins in those seven races.

The most recent example of that came at Texas Motor Speedway last July. It was essentially a foregone conclusion that he would win the race before a late caution flag messed up his pit sequence and he finished in seventh place.

Now just imagine if he can start closing out those kinds of races like he did in Sunday’s race.

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Will Blaney make the 2021 season his first with multiple wins? If so, where and when will he do so, and how many wins will he end up with by the time the season ends in November? Will he contend for the championship and qualify for the Championship 4 for the first time in his career this year?