Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – For the third consecutive week Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney looked to be THE driver to deal with for a NASCAR Cup Series checkered flag. And while tough luck circumstances resulted in another “near miss” rather than Victory Lane celebration – his work has still been stellar enough to propel him into driver standings lead for the first time in his five-year career.
The 26-year-old holds that top position in the championship for the second straight week as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s FanShield 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
It’s the ultimate competitive boost for the young talent and it’s an even better sign for his Team Penske organization, which holds the top two positions in the standings with former NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano on Blaney’s heels – 11 points out of the lead. Former NASCAR Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is tied for 11th place in the standings right now.
Blaney finished runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500, was leading late in the Las Vegas race, only to finish 11th and, again, led 54 laps on Sunday at California’s Auto Club Speedway only to finish 19th after having to drop from second place to replace a bum tire with only three laps remaining in the race.
Logano won at Las Vegas after finishing 26th at Daytona and he was 12th at Auto Club on Sunday. Keselowski was eliminated from the Daytona 500 in a late-race crash and finished 36th, but he’s rallied with a seventh-place finish at Las Vegas and a fifth-place run in California to get into the thick of things, championship-wise.
“One of them deals today,” Blaney posted on social media, following a noticeably disappointed reaction immediately after the race on pit road. “Good car, just unfortunate deal at the end with that tire.”
The upside is despite Blaney’s near-misses, he’s still top man in NASCAR’s top series. And making all this success more impressive is that Team Penske embarked on an aggressive, full-scale team reorganization this past offseason.
All three of the team’s NASCAR Cup Series crew chiefs are working with different drivers in 2020. Blaney now has Todd Gordon (formerly with Logano) leading his team. Logano has Paul Wolfe (formerly with Keselowski) and Keselowski has Jeremy Bullins (formerly with Blaney).
A conservative – however ambitious – view of the major organizational changes would perhaps soften expectations for the early part of the 2020 season. Instead, Team Penske wasted no time picking right up where it left off – with three championship contending teams.
Blaney had worked with Bullins since 2012. The two were paired at Wood Brothers Racing, earning Blaney’s first career NASCAR Cup Series victory at Pocono Raceway in 2017 before moving to Team Penske together in 2018. And the change in team leadership has been a transition for crew chiefs but also for the drivers; and particularly Blaney who is still relatively new in charting his NASCAR Cup Series championship path.
“I am excited to work with Todd Gordon,” Blaney said just prior to the Daytona 500. “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.
“I worked with Jeremy Bullins since 2012 when I got to Penske from Xfinity to Cup and when you work with someone that long, you kind of get your own language going. When you work with someone new, they have their own vocabulary and maybe ask about the car differently.
“It is just a little different demeanor. I am different from Joey (Logano) and we are both different from Brad. When you get someone new, it changes things up and then you start thinking about things different and we focus more on those things and also focus on what I know from the past. It opens you up when you work with different people. You take what you learned from the good.”
Logano had a similarly immediate positive start to 2020. He won the first race out with his new leader Wolfe, the Duel 150 Daytona 500 qualifying race during Daytona Speedweeks. He answered that with a victory at Las Vegas – two weeks into the season schedule.
“That’s what you dream of, right, is when you have a new team like this, all working together, there’s going to be some ups and downs,” Logano said. “There’s going to be a little bit of a learning-curve but being able to knock a win off pretty quick here, even though it’s just the Duel and it’s not the 500, but it’s still a momentum builder. It shows that we all can do it together.”
Logano conceded it’s been a learning curve – especially establishing good communication channels with a new leader in Wolfe. It’s learning the nuances of one another. The big goals have never wavered.
“I think when you’re working with someone that you haven’t worked with a lot, you tend to over-communicate on both sides. I think Paul (Wolfe) does it and so do I, and I’m the king of asking questions a lot of times. Sometimes dumb questions, but I’ll ask them. And I think that’s really excelled some of the communication between the two of us and also our engineers, all three of us, four of us, work really closely together as this has kind of started over the off-season, talking about setups, talking about how we wanted to race, talking about just so many different things.”
Things look positive going forward too. At the spring Phoenix race last year, Blaney won the pole position and finished a career-best third-place, leading 94 laps. He was third in the Playoff penultimate there last November and has led laps in three of the past five races.
Logano won at Phoenix in 2016 and like Blaney, also finished top-10 in both races last year (10th in spring and ninth in the fall after leading 93 laps).
Keselowski won the pole position in 2014 and has six top-five finishes in 21 starts, including a career-best runner-up showing in the 2018 Playoff race there.