Team Penske did everything but win Wednesday’s Cup night race at Martinsville Speedway.
While Martin Truex Jr. ran away with the victory in the final leg of the race, he was followed by Team Penske’s three cars, as Ryan Blaney led Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
At the end of the night, the three drivers combined to lead 273 of 500 laps as Logano led 234 laps and won the first stage.
But Blaney’s second-place finish – his fourth top five in the last five races – was anything but easy.
Blaney started on the pole but quickly dropped through the field and was lapped by Logano on Lap 51.
“We started off really bad,” Blaney said. “We went from starting on the pole to being a lap down in 60 laps. That’s kind of tough to do. We found a way to do that. We already dug ourselves a hole early. … After the first pit stop, we got our car a lot better, a lot better. I think just the green racetrack didn’t really go well with what we had or something. We really wore our tires out. I had to run the top a lot, was getting passed. I don’t think that helped.”
After 63 circuits of the track spent a lap down, Blaney received a free pass when the caution came out on Lap 113. He then charged to 10th place by Lap 161, fifth by Lap 182 and was second at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260.
“We had a great long‑run car,” said Blaney, who took the lead 35 laps into the final stage. “(It was good) to be able to get the lead there at the start of the third stage, kind of biding our time, taking care of our stuff.”
It came undone during a caution that came out on Lap 328 when Blaney was penalized for a crew member going over the pit wall too soon. Blaney had to restart at the back of the field. But with just under 170 laps left in the race, Blaney charged again and was in second place with 44 laps to go.
“(Truex) just got away from me,” Blaney said. “I couldn’t run him down. By the time I got to second, he was gone. … I was never really close enough … on equally worn tires to see what we had for him.”
For Keselowski, it was his sixth straight top-10 finish, which includes two wins. He also rallied from being a lap down early.
“By the time we were able to get the lap back, we were at Stage 2,” Keselowski said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get any stage points, but rallied to get up to the lead there about 150 to go. Wasn’t quite good enough to hold off (Truex). He was super, super strong. He proved why he’s so good. He just kept passing cars, just flying. Pretty impressive.
“All in all was really proud. The first time I’ve been here with (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins. This is a track you get a lot of reps with a crew chief, you reiterate, find small things to get to the front, to be the best. To come here our first time together and run third I think is a pretty good mark for us.”
For all three drivers it was their first time at Martinsville with their respective crew chiefs, who were swapped among the teams in the offseason. It’s a move that’s proven to be fruitful. Both Keselowski and Logano have two wins each and Blaney has had winning speed the last five races.
Logano isn’t totally surprised by the success of the crew chief swap after 11 races. He called the season so far “enlightening.”
“I think if you look at what was going on last year we all had good speed, all of our cars were strong at different points of the season or different types of race tracks, so I really didn’t see much of a risk by doing it and I think I’ve seen just a longer runway for everybody because you’re really sharing information,” Logano said.
“Obviously, we share setups and we talk to each other, but I never drove Brad’s car. I never worked with (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe). Blaney never worked with Todd (Gordon) and Jeremy with Brad. We can talk about it and we can try to mimic setups, but it’s not the same. … At the same time, I’m bringing what we did last year to Paul and Paul is bringing what he did last year and we’re able to just kind of try to make the best of both worlds. It’s been fun.
“There have been a lot of interesting conversations that get sparked that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. As weird as it is to see what was your team for six or seven years working with Blaney, but I honestly can tell you that the relationships that you build with your team it becomes family, so I hope for their success and I’m glad to see Blaney is running really well and leading a lot of laps and a win is right around the corner.”