Starting with Mark Donohue back in the 1970s, Roger Penske has shepherded many a champion to the top of their racing game. It’s no different with 2023 NASCAR Cup Series titleholder Ryan Blaney, a member of a racing family that’s had success, if not at the level Blaney’s achieved in his relatively short NASCAR Cup Series career.
Roger Penske has been aware of Blaney for quite some time. Of course the motorsports general knew of Blaney’s grandfather Lou, who won more than 500 (and likely closer to 600) super modified, sprint and modified races in the 1960s and ‘70s. But it was Lou’s two sons, Dale and Dave who brought the family name to prominence, competing in both open- and closed-wheel competition at a higher level than their father.
Ryan’s dad, Dave Blaney began competing in NASCAR’s Cup Series in 1992 as well as racing in USAC and other open wheel competitions. In fact, Dave Blaney has two World of Outlaws titles in addition to claiming the 1993 Chili Bowl Nationals; he raced in the Cup Series through the 2012 season, the same year Ryan Blaney made his first NASCAR starts in the Xfinity Series, competing for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Before joining Team Penske, Ryan Blaney competed in both Xfinity and NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series competition, gaining Penske’s eye.
“Remember it was 2012 when [Ryan’s] his dad came into our motorhome at Richmond and we talked,” Penske reminisced. “Here’s this young guy with lots of passion, and wanted to be a champion. We bought into his package at that point and he won with Brad (Keselowski) in trucks. He won in our Xfinity car early in 2013, so we saw that he knew how to be a winner,” Penske said.
As Ryan Blaney learned his craft with Penske technical partner, the Wood Brothers, Roger Penske saw beyond the numbers this third-generation driver was putting up. “I think we really saw his capability in 2017 when he won the race at Pocono,” Penske revealed. “That really showed us that he had the mettle to be a winner and then, as we moved on, he was fast. We had pit stop problems; we had speeding in the pits… Ryan came through that and, of course, in 2022 we had the speed.
“He won the All-Star Race that year, so we saw that he had that capability, but coming into ’23 I know everybody has talked about how we kind of looked like we didn’t really have any speed” at the beginning of the season. “I think we were learning about the car and it took us some time, but the effort that we always do at the end of the season for the championship, is build new cars with all the things that we learned through the season. All the [crew] chiefs got together as we got into that last eight and they really put their shoulder against the car. I think we just knew that he was a champion,” Penske said.
Ryan Blaney’s 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship, driving the No. 12 Ford Mustang, gives Team Penske a two-year run as leaders of this pack, after Joey Logano logged his second title in 2022. While, as Penske notes, “They don’t give you an extra lap ahead of everybody after you win one,” he felt that Blaney’s attitude as a wingman to Logano at the close of the 2022 season showed he is a team player and a true racer. “The expectations,” Penske noted, “are that you’re a winner,” particularly for this team that’s won 148 races and 12 championships in a variety of series over the past six years.
As his team leader says, “We go out there to win.” For Ryan Blaney, a winning attitude has always been part of his family tree. After being in the sport from birth and being “thrown into a car” by Tommy Baldwin as a young driver, Blaney knows the time he spent on Baldwin’s team “opened up a lot of doors for me, so I owe him a lot. He’s a huge part of getting me going and giving me opportunities. He’s done so much for the sport – and for me and my family – so he’s definitely worthy of a lot of praise and he deserves it.”
Penske said of Blaney’s career that it was a long journey to his first championship. “You get your first win in the series and, internally, t gives you confidence,” he remarked of his 2017 Pocono Cup Series victory. “I think that was fantastic, but then you still have to prove yourself. You can’t just be one and done, you have to continue to try to do better and continue to grow as a driver and as a person. I think winning for the Wood Brothers there (at Pocono) was great. That was a really special one and it opened up a lot of doors.”
Ryan Blaney has been known for his affinity with fans of the sport and his willingness to take time to talk with fans, even as he marches to his race car after introductions. Still, he understands his responsibilities as a Cup Series champion who needs to make his impact in the garage area, on the track and in grandstands around the country. “You have to be impactful in the garage, whether it’s being a big voice in the driver’s council with NASCAR… I think you have a right to be a very vocal [voice] in it. I’m not a very vocal person in those meetings but I should probably start being that way. I think the away from the track stuff, you have a big obligation as well. I’m pushing to do everything we can,” he said.
“I want the sport to be healthy. I’m part of this sport and I want this sport, its reach, its product on track, the outlook of it from the fan perspective, internal perspective from the media, I want this sport to do well, because I want to be a part of this sport for a long time – and you don’t want to be part of a sport that’s in a rut. I think it’s positive for the future, so my mindset on that is, ‘Hey, I’m growing myself; I’m growing the sport.’ This is like a win-win for everybody,” Blaney emphasized.
After Ryan Blaney secured his Cup Series title in Phoenix, the coolest person to reach out to him after winning was sprint car maestro Doug Wolfgang, he said. Wolfgang explained to Ryan how he felt about the successes the family has had over the years: “I have a dilemma,” Wolfgang told him. “I raced with your grandpa and I was jealous of him, so I tried to mirror my driving style off of him. And then your damn dad came along and he was even better, and I tried to mirror myself off of your dad. Now I’m not even racing and I’m watching you,” Blaney recalled Wolfgang saying, “and now I’m thinking back that I need to mirror myself off of you. So I have this Blaney curse that I just love watching them!”
Doug Wolfgang isn’t alone.