CHARLOTTE – An unsuspecting Ryan Blaney was walking to the drivers meeting at Martinsville Speedway last October when a friend hit him with some major family news.
“My buddy’s like, ‘Hey I didn’t know about Willy and your sister,’ ” Blaney recently recalled in an interview with NASCAR on NBC’s Rutledge Wood. “And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Well, Ryan, your younger sister, Erin, is dating someone you might now.
The guy who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet that you might be slamming fenders with on NASCAR’s shortest track in a couple of hours.
“Oh gosh,” Byron said when recently told how Ryan Blaney had learned the news. “Man. No wonder he raced me so hard that day. I should have handled that better.”
Though somewhat upset to have learned secondhand, Blaney resisted the temptation of immediately telling Byron he knew, saving it for a card game later (“It was a little awkward that he actually brought it up first,” Byron said.).
“I really wanted to mess with him before the race and really tell him that I slyly figured it out, but I didn’t,” Blaney said. “I texted Erin first. ‘I think you forgot to tell me some news.’
“I mean, people always ask me, ‘Are you mad that Will is dating your sister?’ I don’t care, she’s 22 and can do whatever she wants. And I like him. So it’s all good.”
— Erin Blaney (@ErinBlaney) January 22, 2020
But the blossoming romance has rekindled discussions about love in the fast lane involving parties who will be on opposing ends for roughly three hours every weekend over the next 10 months.
NASCAR featured the most high-profile romance in racing history when Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. became an item shortly before they began battling for the 2013 Cup rookie of the year. They made it through five seasons together despite wrecking each other a few times.
How will Blaney and Byron handle the unusual ties that indirectly will bind them this year?
“Oh, that is a hot topic in the garage,” Corey LaJoie said with a laugh. “That is the ultimate mind games you can play, too. I am sure that gets in (Blaney’s) head a little bit just thinking about it when he lines up next to (Byron) on a restart. You can’t wreck your sister’s boyfriend. You can’t do it!”
There are those who view dating a competitor’s sister as having an inherent upper hand behind the wheel.
“Knowing that he knows, that’s the best part,” Clint Bowyer said. “Oh, I would love it.
“Whatever happens on the track, guess what? I’m going home with your sister! I mean, it’s done. What is he going to say?”
Others were less on board with the concept, notably Jimmie Johnson after learning Blaney discovered the truth before Martinsville. “Great track to do that,” Johnson deadpanned. “I don’t think I would do it. That whole category seems to be trouble.”
“I could see some conflict there,” Erik Jones said. “I try to avoid conflict.”
There is a long history, though, of drivers who started long-term relationships in the pits, particularly some well-documented examples in NASCAR.
Kyle Larson married the former Katelyn Sweet, the sister of Brad Sweet, who had raced with Larson on dirt tracks for years.
“Been there, done that,” Larson said. “It’s worked out for all of us.”
Any advice he’d offer the newest happy couple?
“No, because I want to see everything that happens,” Larson said. “William has a sister, and Blaney could probably work on that. Then it gets extra weird!
“Or maybe it gets less weird. I don’t know.”
It was weird for Daniel Suarez when he began dating the sister of former F1 and NASCAR driver Nelson Piquet Jr., one of the few friends he had shortly after moving to America several years ago.
“I couldn’t really communicate with a lot of people because I only spoke Spanish, so at the time the only people I was able to get along with spoke Spanish or something similar,” Suarez said. “I used to hang out a lot with Nelson Piquet and some Brazilian drivers. And then I met Nelson’s sister and then I’m dating her. He didn’t find it too fantastic when he found out.”
Alex Bowman can relate from having dated the sister of Chad Boat, whom he raced often on dirt.
“I really like Chad, and I thought Chad really liked me,” Bowman said with a laugh. “I don’t think he does anymore. I think that adds a very awkward element to a lot of things, and I’m here for it. I love sitting back and watching it.”
Aric Almirola knows the complications of dating within a team member’s family from another perspective. He is married to the former Janice Goss. She is the daughter of Randy Goss, who was Almriola’s crew chief for four Xfinity races in 2005.
“You know what kind of nerves go into when you date your crew chief’s daughter,” Almirola said. “Can you imagine if something goes haywire or wrong, and you get in a fight or break up, and she cries to her daddy about how you treated her wrong – and he’s your crew chief?
“I was committed.”
Joey Logano said that’s the right standard to apply when dating a rival driver’s sister.
“You’re assuming a lot of risk, so it’s got to be worth it,” the 2018 champion said. “She’s gotta be like smoking and really cool. This is like you see her and you’re like, ‘This might be the one.’ This isn’t like, ‘I’m going to date you for a little bit and maybe we’ll end up together.’
“Because the risk you’re taking is you’re going to get backed in the fence a few times, probably. If someone dated my sister and I competed against them and if it ever went wrong, that car would be (damaged) all the time.”
Though it could make for “some ugly Thanksgiving dinners,” Austin Dillon also believes there’s a power shift if the relationship becomes permanent. “The guy that has the sister holds the upper hand if they’re married,” Dillon said.
Kevin Harvick, who “absolutely” would have dated a competitor’s sister when he was younger, said the dynamics are unique in Byron’s case.
“He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” Harvick said. “I think that’s a different situation.”
Was so much fun 🏝 https://t.co/wbSULWZPeD
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) December 24, 2019
It seems to have gone well so far for Blaney and Byron, who joined an annual offseason holiday trip with his girlfriend, her brother and their friends (including Bubba Wallace).
“We rent a big house and just go hang out,” Blaney said. “And we had made this plan before they started dating. She’d sent a text to our group chat, like, ‘Hey do you mind if Willy B. comes?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t care. It’s fine.’ We had a good time. He was a little shy at first, not really knowing a ton of people in our group, but he’s a good guy.”
There has been one awkward moment, though.
Byron made his relationship Instagram official on Nov. 24, thanking Erin Blaney for a lovely time in Asheville, North Carolina.
Blaney posted to Instagram that day, too – a black and white self-portrait in which he cradled a shotgun while donning a state trooper-style hat pulled down on his forehead. He stared into a fire pit with a wry grin.
The caption read, “Turkey week,” but it naturally was interpreted as being much more than a Thanksgiving coincidence.
“That had people going nuts,” Byron said, smiling. “I was a little scared, too, to be honest.”
Blaney also playfully commented on Byron’s photo with an emoji of a knife and coffin, but there were no hard feelings.
That was a relief to those in Cup who want “the Blyrons” to succeed.
“Full support on that one,” Chase Elliott said. “I hope it ends well. I’m pulling for them. I really am. They are both really good people.”
As a Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Byron and a buddy of Blaney’s, Elliott has a unique perspective on the relationship. But the two-time Most Popular Driver is particular about keeping tabs through only one source.
“I just ask Ryan because I want him to tell me the update,” Elliott said. “He’s in the know. He’s a blood brother there.”
Blaney said communicating directly with family is how he would have done it if he were dating a competitor’s sister.
“That’s kind of the gentleman thing to do, not just kind of slide in there,” Blaney said. “These kids nowadays, they probably just go behind someone’s back, but I’d ask that competitor first. ‘Hey, do you mind if I take your sister on a date?’
“The nice way to do it. Especially if they’re a competitor you see every weekend. It’s an easy knock on the bus.”
Much better than a blindside on the way to the drivers meeting.
Stay tuned next week for Rutledge Wood’s interviews with Byron, Blaney and many other drivers about dating a competitor’s sister as the popular “Rut’s Basement” feature returns to NASCAR America.