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Young Star Blaney Picks Right Spot To Make Winning Debut for Penske in Daytona Duel

With his victory in Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel at Daytona, young Ryan Blaney showed why he is “Penske material.”

Blaney, the 24-year-old son of sprint car legend Dave Blaney, has all the ingredients that would impress the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history, Roger Penske. He showed why Penske expanded his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team to three cars by driving a smart, calculated race Thursday, Feb. 15 to win the 150-mile qualifying race for Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500.

For the first time since the advent of NASCAR’s playoff system, the 26-race regular season will conclude at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the famed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard. Traditionally, the Brickyard has been held in the hot, humid, sweltering days of late July or early August, but this year the race will take place Sunday, Sept. 9.

The Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard will be the final time drivers can advance into the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs. The “Road to the Brickyard” officially begins at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday with the Daytona 500, and Blaney hopes to take the starring role.

He already has the looks of a star. At 24, he understands today’s millennial generation because he is a member of that group. With his ability to understand social media, he is helping to connect a new, younger group of fans to a sport that at its core includes a colorful, hard-edged group of fans who wear their loyalty literally on their sleeves.

Blaney has been in Team Penske’s pipeline ever since he began to display stardom in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2013. Through an alliance with Team Penske and the famed Wood Brothers team, Blaney drove less than a half-season of Cup in 2015 and had one top-five and two top-10s in 16 races. He moved up to full-time duty in 2016 with three top-fives and nine top-10s.

He took the Wood Brothers back to Victory Lane last June when he won at Pocono Raceway. The victory moved him into NASCAR’s Playoffs, and he finished ninth in the final standings.

Penske’s plan was to expand to three drivers this season to join 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano. After helping to groom him with the Wood Brothers, Team Penske promoted Blaney for the 2018 season.

He drove to victory in his very first race as a member of Team Penske in Thursday night’s 150-mile qualifier for the Daytona 500. He got a little help from his “BFF” – Bubba Wallace – who helped push Blaney to the lead in the two laps of overtime over his teammate Logano.

“That's why I picked the bottom on the last restart. He was down there,” Blaney said of Wallace. “I felt like he could give me a good push. I figured if I was clear, both lanes getting into one, I could control it and go on to win the race.

“Hopefully (Wallace) can continue to show what he can do. I know a lot of people have given him not a lot of credit in the offseason. I think he proved himself tonight, that he should be here and deserves to be here. I hope he can continue to do that.

“I made the move in the Clash, and it didn't work. It almost didn't work tonight.

“I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to. Brad (Keselowski) laid back so much from whoever was behind him, I kind of laid back to Brad off of (Turn) four because I didn't want them to get a huge run. It just propelled me so fast to Joey (Logano), I had to turn left, or I would have ran him over.”

Blaney may be young, but he grew up in a racing family. His father, Dave, ran in the Cup Series full-time from 2000 to 2013. He understands the nuances that come with NASCAR competition, including the strange scientific art known as “restrictor-plate racing.”

He drove with all the savvy of a proven veteran Thursday night.

That’s the vision Penske and Team Penske President Tim Cindric saw in Blaney when they promoted him this season.

After all, he was “Penske Material.”

Young Blaney has accepted the challenge and is ready for the next phase of his career.

“It’s been pretty seamless, the transition between the Wood Brothers and the Penske group,” Blaney said. “A lot of the same people are coming over, so I’m really not meeting new personnel. You already kind of feel like a family, so that’s been really simple it’s just a matter of trying to perform.”

Blaney is ready to learn from his teammates to become a better racer himself.

“I think definitely Brad is probably the best one right now as far as restrictor plate, but Joey is right up there with him,” Blaney said. “There is some stuff you take away from him, especially running more and more with him and in the Clash of what Brad did to try to get the lead and keep it.

Mission No. 1 was to win the Advance Auto Parts Clash last Sunday. Blaney came close but didn’t, placing fourth. Mission No. 2 was to win one of the Duels.

Mission accomplished.

But the big prize comes in the 60th Daytona 500. A win would automatically advance Blaney into NASCAR’s Playoffs, and he would be one of the 16 drivers honored after the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis following that race.

Blaney realizes Sunday’s 500-mile race at Daytona will be much different than the 150-miler he won Thursday night.

“I think Sunday is going to be way different because you’ve got 40 cars,” Blaney said. “With 17 cars (Clash) or 20 (Duels), it’s hard to get enough people to commit down there to want to go. I know there are maybe four or five cars that at one point tried to go and the couldn’t. That’s a product of who is leading the top lane, honestly. Brad’s car was super-fast in the Clash, so the top lane was really fast, so you won’t see that Sunday.

“With 40 (cars), if one car pulls down, you’re going to have 10 of them go down there, especially if you’re 25th on back. Why not? What have you got to lose? You won’t really see that, but it’s a lot about the lead car, who is leading that group. If it’s a fast-enough car and they can kind of pull that lane and then they know how to slow up the top lane and then go to the bottom of the racetrack, so it’s a lot about the lead car, but a lot of people will be more willing to do it Sunday than the Clash or the Duels just because there are a lot more cars.”

Blaney begins his “Road to the Brickyard” in Sunday’s Daytona 500 starting from the third position. It’s a 26-race quest that will culminate with 400 hard miles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to finalize the NASCAR Playoff lineup.

After that, it’s a 10-race playoff to determine the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

And for a driver who has already displayed why he is “Penske Material,” those are the same qualities that determine a champion.

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