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Learning Experience in Vegas Pushes Budding Star Blaney to Top of Cup Standings

As the NASCAR Cup Series wheels this weekend into California Speedway in Fontana, California, for the third race of the season, trends are starting to develop.

Although two races into a 36-race schedule may be too soon to determine trends for 2020, early indications seem to favor the Ford teams of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.

Both teams featured drivers leading a good part of the 62nd Daytona 500 on Feb. 17 and last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Although a Toyota driven by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, the race was shaping up to be a big win for Ford. Ryan Newman’s Ford was heading to the checkered flag before a mad scramble at the end sent him into the wall and airborne, just 100 yards or so short of the victory.

Miraculously, and thanks to safety measures incorporated into the NASCAR Cup cars, Newman avoided serious injury and spent just two nights at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida. He continues to make positive progress in his recovery.

As the series shifted to Las Vegas, the race to the finish was shaping up to be a teammate battle between Ford drivers Ryan Blaney and Logano. The final caution flag of the race forced Blaney to make a big decision as the leader of the race.

If he decided to pit for tires, the rest of the field would stay on track for track position. If Blaney stayed out, other teams would gamble that fresh rubber would pay an advantage.

Crew chief Todd Gordon made the call to Blaney to pit, and the majority of the contenders stayed on track. One of those was his Team Penske teammate Logano.

Once the cars that had fresh tires returned and the race was restarted for the final two laps, the top seven on the restarts were drivers that stayed on the track, led by Logano. He drove the Team Penske Pennzoil Ford to victory.

Blaney, naturally, was discouraged after the turn of events but took satisfaction in being the Cup Series points leader.

Blaney takes a three-point lead over Logano into the third contest of 2020, the Auto Club 400 at Fontana. Another Ford driver, two-time Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard winner Kevin Harvick, is third, four points back.

Blaney has been pegged as one of NASCAR’s stars of the younger generation since his days with the Wood Brothers. That team operated under an alliance with Team Penske, and Blaney’s time with the legendary NASCAR Cup operation gave him time to develop. The Wood Brothers’ team is located in the Concord, North Carolina, area, not far from Team Penske’s massive facility in Mooresville, North Carolina.

In the June 2017 contest at Pocono Raceway, Blaney gave the Wood Brothers Cup win No. 99. By the end of that season, he moved to Team Penske to take over the No. 12 Menards Ford for 2018.

He became the first-ever winner on “The Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2018 and took the big win at Talladega last October for his third career victory.

Blaney has been successful in securing single victories from 2017-19. This year, he is ready to elevate his game to become a multi-race winner.

What will it take to get there?

“I think just getting smarter as the race goes on will help,” Blaney said. “I think that is something that has hurt me and something that I have struggled with, maybe not thinking far enough ahead of how the track is going and changing things to be better at the end of a race. I think that is where the best guys can do that. Kyle (Busch) and Harvick, those guys are really smart at figuring out what the track is doing really early, what their car is doing, and what they need it to do for the end.

“A lot of races we fire off really well and then don't end the race like we fired off. That is what I am talking about, the ability to pinpoint where you think things are going and get ahead of it. If you are finally figuring out halfway through the last run, that is obviously too late. That is the biggest thing that me, personally, can do. I am excited to work with Todd Gordon. It has been really great so far. Maybe you think of things that you didn’t before because it wasn’t normal to you. It opens your mind a little bit to other areas you need to improve on.”

The 2020 season has been a bit different for Blaney as the 26-year-old continues to develop into a NASCAR star. There are bigger goals on the horizon, such as more victories, a Cup Series championship and a July 5 victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the famed Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line.

“I know they have a lot of plans for the Speedway, which is really neat,” Blaney said of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Not only the road course race that they are doing there with the Xfinity guys, but I think Roger Penske has a good amount of plans for the racetrack, in general, for all different kinds of racing.

“Around our shop, really nothing has changed. It is really neat that Roger owns that place. It just puts more pressure on us to try to win there. Not that there wasn’t any already. Nothing really changed. I’m just excited to get there and excited for the future of that place and what he has in store.”

As NASCAR’s leader of the pack, at least in terms of the points standings, Blaney reflected on the ill-timed turn of events that turned what looked like a hard-earned victory into an 11th-place finish at Las Vegas.

He went from leading the race before the caution to 12th on the restart after changing four tires.

“It was just a crappy situation,” Blaney said after the race. “We fight our butts off to get the lead there from third and get it. I had a good shot of holding the 88 (Alex Bowman) off. I thought we could have once we got in clean air.

“The caution came out, and we pitted. Some guys didn’t. Some guys took two tires, and we just end up getting absolutely destroyed with people not knowing how many cars were to the outside of them.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say we should have stayed out. That’s a tough call for Todd Gordon in his position, but I’ve got to thank him for giving me a really good car. We were great on long runs. We were so good on long runs and that’s something to hold our heads up high about. It just stinks about the finish.”

Gordon radioed to Blaney after the race that he shouldn’t have called him into the pits. But, of course, that’s second-guessing a decision, and in NASCAR Cup Series racing, competitors sometimes have to make what they consider the right call and go for it.

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