Evolution, with room for growth: Ryan Blaney 3.0 is here

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Last month, Ryan Blaney captured his first win on a non-drafting oval in nearly four years. In the interim, his driving ability matured, an evolution that’s given us three different iterations of a young driver who has plenty more room for growth.

Blaney 1.0: A promising prospect

Blaney’s development and assimilation were unconventional.

When he made his NASCAR Cup Series debut on May 10, 2014 at Kansas Speedway, he did so with just 20 Xfinity Series starts under his belt. In lieu of a full Xfinity season in 2015, he competed in 16 Cup races for Team Penske affiliate Wood Brothers Racing, 13 races with Penske’s Xfinity team and five races for now-defunct Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series.

Thus, his first season and a half at the Cup level, 2015-16, was comprised of rocky displays, a mishmash of a driver both raw and completely inexperienced relative to the levels he was seeing. Finally, a staying power surfaced in 2017.

Blaney 2.0: The restart specialist

Unbeknownst to most NASCAR fans, they’ve been spoiled with a recent influx of talented prospects like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Christopher Bell, able to pass abundantly and efficiently, seemingly since their first days in the Cup Series — a rare occurrence says history, though like unappreciated. Blaney was promoted within the same time frame as this group, but lacked their early, heady passing acumen, proving himself a specialist in another key area relative to other young drivers.

After the initial 54-race culture shock, Blaney established himself as an elite restarter by age 23 and battled for the mantle of best restarter under the age of 30 with Larson and Joey Logano until the latter aged out last year:

Blaney insists restarts — namely, their importance — were instilled during his formative years competing in super late models.

“Those guys were so on it on restarts,” Blaney told NBC Sports. “If you weren’t paying attention, they took advantage of you. I was really young when I started in PASS (the Pro All-Stars Series, a late model series in the Southeast) and those guys had many years on them. I learned from an early age to be an aggressor on restarts, and I think it carried over to where I am now.”

He scored his first win at Pocono in 2017, outlasting Kevin Harvick on a 13-lap green-flag run. That run was kick-started when Blaney moved from fourth to second within two laps of the restart, his actions mimicked by Harvick, the driver trailing him in the sixth-place position. The narrative was one of an upset, but in reality, Harvick, ranked fifth in position retention rate that year, was bested on a late restart by a better restarter:

In follow-up Pocono races, Blaney’s win was misconstrued for what it was, and he was miscast as a trendy favorite on the 2.5-mile track. While restarts and short runs assisted in his victory, neither are norms for Pocono, which caters to the most reliable long-run passers, a trait absent from Blaney’s repertoire until recently.

Blaney 3.0: Efficient long-run passer

The 2020 season marked Blaney’s first as a “plus passer,” or a driver utilizing passes to score track position beyond the statistical expectation of someone with his average running position.

This was a monumental occurrence in Blaney’s evolution. If he could sustain an adept passing acumen on top of a restarting profile among the industry’s best, it’d make him nearly impervious on the track, foolproof regardless of how a race breaks. It’s the kind of progression that could unlock a legitimate championship contender and consummate favorite across all tracks.

He’s responded so far in 2021 with a better adjusted pass efficiency beyond a heightened expected adjusted pass efficiency. Through eight races, he’s winning 3.14% more of his pass encounters than expected, a surplus passing value that ranks as a series best. It’s supplied his Penske team 62 positions on the racetrack.

His most recent victory came at Atlanta, when he reeled in a dominant Larson on a 101-lap green-flag run to end the race. It was a coronation for a driver who’s steadily improved his long-run gamesmanship and traditional passing outside of the restart window.

Developing upgrade: Reliable finisher

Blaney’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution — has seen a steady upward trajectory since his age-23 season (2017). He finally crossed into the 2.000 production bracket, a space typically occupied by the top 15-19% of Cup Series drivers each year, for the first time in 2019. His 2.750 PEER through the first eight races this season ranks seventh in the series, though third among drivers under 30, trailing Larson and William Byron.

He still needs to eliminate a nagging statistical anchor. From 2017-20, the difference in the percentage of Blaney’s completed laps inside the top 15 and the percentage of finishes in the same whereabouts saw chasms as big as 17% — in 2017, his worst season for results despite the Pocono win. He ranked among the six biggest underachievers each year during that stretch with as many as 16 top-15 finishes, based on statistical expectation, left on the table.

Over 85% of his completed laps this season took place inside the top 15, a range in which he’s finished just 75% of the time. With only eight races scratched off of the schedule, it’s early days; however, whether this pattern continues will underscore the sustainability of his current PEER, on track for a career best.

Regardless of this juxtaposition, Penske should soon consider a better approach to how it supports its young, well-rounded driver.

Optimized version: Organizational centerpiece

In theory, as Blaney evolves, so should his team. As of now, his maturation as a racer is exceeding his crew chief’s ability to defend or supplement his running position:

His first season with Todd Gordon as crew chief had to be considered a success, given Blaney, ranked third in speed, had the fastest car to this point in his Cup Series career while enjoying his running position defended at a rate 11 percentage points higher than the year prior, his first in the 2.000 PEER bracket. Gordon’s work during green-flag pit cycles — noted in the spider chart above as GFPC Offense and GFPC Defense, along with Initial Track Position (ITP), Surplus Passing, Restart Offense and Restart Defense — ranked in the 52nd and 26th percentiles.

For all the gains Blaney’s made in how he acquires track position, he’s been forced to endure frequent losses on pit road, both under green — he lost 250 positions across green-flag pit cycles in 2019-20 — and under yellow, as notably as his 2020 loss at Las Vegas and as recently as last Sunday’s penalty in Martinsville.

This season has been a considerable step backwards for the strategy output of Gordon, whose 30% retention rate on green-flag pit cycles ranks last among full-time crew chiefs. This is ill timed, more than neutralizing the efflorescence of Blaney’s ability to overtake, which ranks in the 93rd percentile or higher:

Penske as a whole doesn’t have the strategic capabilities of other programs that have poured considerable resources into the effort — none of the four crew chiefs, Wood Brothers Racing’s Greg Erwin included, are especially productive strategists — but the organization’s turn towards 750-horsepower tracks, ovals not likely to ever see a high volume of green-flag pit cycles, may diminish the need for good strategy moving forward. If that’s the case, Blaney is well positioned for future title runs, though his blossoming overall ability might not fetch commensurate results across the entirety of a 36-race season.

But it’s clear his talent is nearing or at a point when a select few winning drivers become outright stars, a slow burn we’ve witnessed since he was a 20-year-old debutant.