After being eliminated in the first round of last year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Ryan Blaney closed the season with six top-10 finishes in the final seven races. But any momentum Blaney and his No. 12 Team Penske crew had was blunted in the opening races of 2021.
Blaney was eliminated in the early 16-car wreck at the Daytona 500, overcame an unscheduled pit stop to finish 15th at the Daytona road course, and finished 29th at Homestead-Miami Speedway after an incident with Aric Almirola.
But last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 12 team finally had a clean run, with Blaney finishing top five in both stages to set up a fifth-place finish at day’s end.
That has him optimistic as the series heads to Phoenix Raceway, where he’s finished sixth or better in three of the last four races.
“Our short track program – we’ve put a lot of emphasis on that as a whole group for Team Penske, so I’m looking forward to that,” Blaney said during a Wednesday teleconference.
“… Every team looked at Homestead and Vegas as a mile-and-a-half to see where you stack up there to other teams and people are really gonna be focused on this one too, to see where your short track program is at right now, so I’m looking forward to it. It’s always been a good track for us and hopefully, we can build on our solid run there in the fall last year.”
Seeing as Phoenix will once again host NASCAR’s championship weekend in November, it’s also a chance for drivers and teams to build their notebooks in case they return there to race for a title.
Blaney has not reached the Championship 4 in his Cup career. From his perspective, Phoenix is no different from any other track in regards to gathering notes, since teams want to win every weekend.
“You take notes after every single race, and teams and drivers build off of that previous race,” Blaney said. “That’s how you adjust for the next one. It don’t matter if it’s a championship race or the playoffs, if it’s the doubleheader at Pocono, you really focus on the previous race to build off the next one, so I don’t think there’s more emphasis on really paying attention to this race.”
However, that doesn’t mean he and his team dismiss how important mastering Phoenix could be at the end of the season.
“Everyone knows going into this race that if we’re in the Championship 4 this year, we really have to pay attention,” Blaney said. “You definitely have that in the back of your head.”
Keselowski and Logano’s last-lap contact with each other cost them both a Daytona 500 win. Since then, Keselowski has recorded finishes of fifth, 16th, and second; for Logano: second, 25th, and ninth.
Out of the Penske trio, only Logano has been to Victory Lane at Phoenix. His win there last spring was his second Cup victory in the desert. He also won the fall 2016 Phoenix race to enter that year’s Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.