Column: Ryan Blaney adds to Ohio family legacy with 1st NASCAR championship

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The Blaney name has long been renowned in motorsports throughout the Midwest, where the Ohio-based family won in sprint cars, won on dirt tracks and racked up championships for three generations.

It began with George Blaney, a lumber operator who also owned a race team. His son, Lou, won 600 sprint feature races, drove for his father's three-car team, was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, and owned and operated Sharon Speedway in Hartford, just shy of the Pennsylvania state line.

Lou had two sons, Dave and Dale. Both wanted to be racers, although Dale played basketball at West Virginia and was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1986. He quit before the season to focus on driving cars, and both of Lou's sons won titles at the grassroots racing level.

Dave then made his way to NASCAR for 473 Cup Series starts over 17 seasons. He was a journeyman — his 2006 victory in the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was the only win of his career across all three NASCAR national series — but he was his son's hero.

Ryan Blaney wanted to be just like his dad. He wanted to be the Blaney to give the family a championship on asphalt. When he finally did it Sunday at Phoenix Raceway his hero was there to celebrate with him.

“He’s been not only someone I grew up wanting to be like and wanting to do his sport, obviously getting me started in racing, supported me along the way, opened a lot of doors for me,” Blaney said Sunday night as his father sat in the back of the media room at Phoenix watching his son with beaming pride.

“For him to still be supportive when I’m an adult is great. His whole thing through the playoffs was, ‘I see the path, I can see the path to the championship, I can see it,'" he continued. "After we won Martinsville, he’s like, ‘It’s lit up now, the path is lit up.’ I think we drove through the gate (now). So we have arrived.”

Not too bad for a guy who in March of this year was blasted by former driver and current NBC analyst Kyle Petty — himself a multi-generational racer — who called Blaney “the new Kasey Kahne. Potential unfulfilled. Everybody wants to talk about what he can do, but he never does anything.”

At the time, Blaney had seven career Cup Series wins over seven seasons and was coming off a winless 2022.

The comments stung Blaney, who knew he had fallen short of the expectations he had for himself and those that Team Penske had in the 29-year-old.

His losing streak stretched 59 races — nearly two full years — before he tearfully snapped it in May with a confidence-resetting win in the Coca-Cola 600. It was validation of the internal work he was doing. In his second season with crew chief Jonathan Hassler, the pairing examined the hurdles for Blaney — and how to get over them.

“It was something we talked about a lot between me and Jonathan, and internally with myself. It’s not fun pointing out things that you do poorly, right? It’s not pointing out flaws about yourself, but it’s important to do to try to work on,” Blaney said. “Like, ‘You’re bad here, you do a terrible job at this.’ It’s hard admitting yourself to those things internally. If they’re holding you back, you have to address those problems.”

His realization that he needed to be better finally came.

“You have to be smarter during races," he recalled. "You have got to think about the bigger picture. It’s not only about being fast, you have to evolve yourself to be a more well-rounded racer. It was a lot of conversations with myself internally.”

The work paid off in this three-win season, especially when he turned it up in the playoffs. Over the final six weeks, Blaney racked up two wins, two runner-ups and didn't finish lower than 12th.

The effort gave Roger Penske consecutive Cup Series titles for the first time in his NASCAR career following Joey Logano's win last year. Blaney's first career title was the fourth Cup championship for Team Penske and 44th overall for the storied organization. It also gave Ford the first three-race sweep of NASCAR's championship weekend since 2001.

Blaney is now NASCAR's first Ohio-born champion and a star in the making. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered off the track, he showed at Phoenix he is unafraid to mix it up. He could have cost himself the title when he deliberately ran into the back of race-winner Ross Chastain because he was mad at how hard Chastain was racing him.

He drives pickup trucks, lives in a rural area of North Carolina, wears flannel and grew a playoff beard that Penske driver and reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden said made Blaney look “like an 1800's U.S. president. I can't look away. It's magical, it's so not Penske.”

Penske wants the beard to go, and Blaney said after the race he will shave it before next season. But he's as blue collar as they come and as relatable to a diehard NASCAR fan as the late Dale Earnhardt.

“I think his limits are the sky,” said Penske, who likened him to four-time Indy 500 winner and Penske stalwart Rick Mears. “He’s a soft-spoken guy, really, but when he gets behind the wheel, like Joey, when he puts his hat on, don’t get in his way. He’s only getting better and better. He’s got the confidence. He’s a leader. He’s a winner and a champion. He’s got a long way to go, a long way.”


AP auto racing: