Ryan Blaney: From the Quarter Midget Track to The Tricky Triangle
By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (May 14, 2021)
Ryan Blaney has a history of firsts at Pocono Raceway.
Sure, most fans remember Blaney’s first career NASCAR Cup Series win that came in 2017. His racing roots, though, first took shape on the soil just outside the Tricky Triangle.
The Pocono Quarter Midget Raceway, a 1/14th-mile clay track, sits just outside of Turn 3 of its 2.5-mile counterpart. That’s where the racing career of one young Ryan Blaney took its green flag.
Blaney, the son of former Cup racer Dave Blaney, was born in Hartford, Ohio, but moved to High Point, North Carolina as a young child. In High Point, Blaney practiced often in his yard on the grass, but he didn’t take his first green flag until hitting the clay in Long Pond.
The track still hosts weekly Friday night racing through the Lehigh Valley Quarter Midget Club, to which Dr. Joe and Rose Mattioli donated the land to promote even more local racing.
“I think it’s great that it’s still there and still hosting races because it’s a great spot for kids to start their careers and get a feel for cars,” Blaney said. “That’s my first [racing] memories. We just went up there on a weekend dad was racing and [I] was able to run some laps and race a little bit. I love the area. It always holds a special place in my heart for multiple reasons.”
Fast forward years later, and his list of reasons to appreciate Pocono grew even greater.
In 2013, Blaney was in the midst of his first full-time season for Brad Keselowski Racing, wheeling the number 29 Ford in the NASCRA Camping World Truck Series. The team had switched manufacturers from Dodge over the offseason and had struggled to that point of the season. Through 10 races, Blaney had accrued two top fives and six top 10s, but four finishes of 16th or worse.
“We didn’t quite have the firepower to compete with ThorSport, Turner Motorsports,” Blaney recalled. “Those guys were super fast and Red Horse Racing was really fast too.”
The 11th race was Pocono. Blaney had a competitive truck and was a solid top-five truck, but he admits his wasn’t the best truck that day. What mattered, though, was where he wound up.
On a restart with four laps remaining, Blaney restarted third behind Todd Bodine and Miguel Paludo, with German Quiroga alongside Blaney in fourth. Right past the start/finish line, Blaney jumped to the inside of Paludo in what became a four-wide battle for the lead entering Turn 1. Blaney stayed as low as he could go and managed to clear his three other competitors before Turn 1.
Blaney then managed to fend off the field on two ensuing green-white-checkered restarts and claimed the victory after leading a race-high 20 laps.
“That was just cool,” Blaney said. “Coming off a part-time schedule in 2012 and then to do it for BKR — and it was our first one with Ford.
“That was huge for Ford to get back into the Truck Series and get a win for those guys and it started a great relationship obviously now with Ford.”
Nothing, though, will top his first career Cup Series victory — especially since it wasn’t without adversity.
In June 2017, Blaney found himself hindered early in the race by a loose wheel, throwing him and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing team off the strategy they’d planned for.
To complicate matters, Blaney lost radio contact to his crew shortly thereafter. The then-24-year-old could hear spotter Josh Williams and crew chief Jeremy Bullins, but he couldn’t relay info himself.
Blaney was perfectly OK with that because he could stay in the loop as the team’s strategy changed, when to pit and whether he was clear in traffic. But to relay what changes the car needed meant moving to old-school communication for the longest-tenured team in the series.
“We did a hand on the roof for loose, hand on the door for tight,” Blaney recalled, “and I’d do that when I go down the frontstretch in a run or first lap after caution, just so they knew how to adjust the race car.”
Those adjustments worked to perfection.
A late-race caution set up a restart with 13 laps to go. Kyle Busch had dominated the day, but then-interim-crew chief Ben Beshore decided to leave the No. 18 Toyota on the racetrack while everyone else except for Brad Keselowski came in for fresh tires.
Blaney restarted fourth, but an outstanding restart for him — and a poor one by Keselowski — shot Blaney into second place by the entrance of Turn 1.
In three laps, Blaney stalked down Busch, who wasn’t going down without a fight. Coming to 10 laps to go, Blaney rocketed off Turn 3 with a head of steam and made a move to Busch’s left. Busch blocked low and drove both drivers near the pit wall before holding the lead onto the Long Pond Straightaway.
Blaney was unrelenting and got the nose of his Ford to Busch’s left once again. Busch again leaned left to side draft Blaney, but through Turn 3, Blaney cleared himself across the nose of Busch’s M&M’s car and set sail for the checkered.
“He didn’t make it easy on me, that’s for sure,” Blaney said. “I don’t blame him for doing that at all. He’s gonna protect trying to win the race too. And that made for a very exciting lap of a side-by-side racing and downshifting and things like that.”
The fight wasn’t over though. Kevin Harvick worked his way around Busch for second and quickly hunted down Blaney inside the final five laps.
But Blaney, in the drive of his life, was flawless. Harvick waited to pounce on a Blaney mistake that never came, as Blaney took the first checkered flag of his NASCAR career.
“A lot of pressure in that situation, going for your first when trying to hold off someone who’s a little bit faster than you, especially a driver like Kevin, who I grew up really watching and admiring and still do,” Blaney said. “And [he will[ go down is as one of the sport’s greatest.”
That triumph brought the Wood Brothers to Pocono’s victory lane for their 99th win as an organization.
“To be able to win that, not only for myself, but for the Wood Brothers, that was great,” Blaney said. “It was our 99th win in the sport. That was my first Cup win. It was a lot of people on that team’s first Cup win — myself, Jeremy Bullins was my crew chief. Our engineers, some crew guys, it was their first Cup win too. So that was really special to do that and I’ll never forget that.”
To win with such an historic race team seems appropriate at a track as storied as Pocono Raceway as the track celebrates 50 years of racing tradition.
That history isn’t lost on Blaney, a racing history buff himself.
“Whenever you have a track that’s around for 50 years, that’s a huge accomplishment,” Blaney said. “You see some amazing racetracks come and go, especially who have been around for decades. It’s just great that Pocono has stayed solidified as one of the great tracks in NASCAR. And to get a couple wins there across a couple series is definitely special.
“Another thing that made it really special for me is that I know there’s three guys who have won at Pocono for the Wood Brothers: David Pearson and Neil Bonnett, and then me. And I think that’s a really cool stat to have, for my sake at least, and the Wood Brothers.”
In 10 Pocono Cup Series starts, Blaney has one win, one top five and four top 10s. Not bad for a kid who started his career on the tiny clay track outside of Turn 3.
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50