Following the 59th Daytona 500, a race held on a 2.5-mile superspeedway, Ryan Blaney shared a thought with AJ Allmendinger.
“Looks like everyone ran a race at Martinsville,” Blaney said, referring to the half-mile track in Virginia that chews up race cars and spits them out. “Everyone’s stuff was tore up. Only a handful of cars left at the end.”
Blaney was one of them.
The 23-year-old driver took his beat-up No. 21 Ford – but not as beat up as race winner Kurt Busch‘s No. 41 – and survived multiple wrecks and a fuel-mileage battle to finish second in The Great American Race.
It’s the best result in Blaney’s first 55 NASCAR Cup Series starts and his fifth top-five. All of those have come with Wood Brothers Racing, which earned its best result since winning the Daytona 500 in 2011 with Trevor Bayne.
With just under 10 laps to go, Blaney was running in the back of the lead pack with little hope of winning the biggest race of the year. Yet he was still in an enviable position after being involved in a five-car crash on Lap 136 that dinged up his Ford.
“I tried to make a move with 10 to go to see what would happen,” Blaney said. “No one really went with me. (Joey Logano) tried to. It really wasn’t happening. I was kind of worried it was just going to end that way.”
But Blaney’s prospects rapidly began changing. With two laps remaining, leader Chase Elliott pulled up lame on the backstretch as his No. 24 ran out of gas. The single-file line that had inhabited the top of the track began dissolving. As the field came down to the white flag, Blaney finally received a productive push from Logano.
“We were able to lay back to him and get a huge run into (Turn) 1,” Blaney said.
Martin Truex Jr. was also out of gas and had lost the lead, which now belonged to Kyle Larson — but not for long. In Turn 1, Kurt Busch went outside and passed Larson’s No. 42, which was running out of fuel.
“(Busch’s move) kept my run going, all the way up to second,” said Blaney, who took his place in the waiting line for history.
Down the backstretch, Blaney saw AJ Allmendinger in his rear-view mirror and expected the No. 47 to attach itself to his bumper and push them toward Busch. Help never got close enough.
“I just wasn’t very fast,” Allmendinger said. “I was still wide open. … That was all we had.”
The No. 21 began “sputtering pretty bad” in Turn 3, a sign Blaney also would be out of gas soon. However, there was enough for Blaney to earn the best finish of his Cup career, 0.223 seconds behind the biggest win of Busch’s career.
All that was after Blaney started at the rear of the field in a backup car following an accident in his Can-Am Duel on Thursday.
“Our backup car was honestly, I felt, like just as good,” Blaney said. “I think our car had enough time to stay up there, too. We could never grab the lead at the time being the one car up front trying to block lanes. We could never get the right push at the right time. Probably something I was doing wrong not to get the right run.”
Blaney led two laps Sunday, the 49th and 50th, as he clashed with Kyle Busch.
The son of former Cup driver Dave Blaney now has two top fives at restrictor-plate races. The first came at Talladega in 2015 as a rookie. Sunday’s Daytona 500 was his first race without the neon yellow rookie stripes on his rear bumper.
“The yellow things on the back bumper helped not being there any more,” Blaney said. “Really, you can talk all about people not going with young drivers or whoever. Really at the end of these things you’re kind of forced to go with whoever wants to go. Today, luckily we had a teammate with Joey behind us who would go with us.”
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