Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney heads to Phoenix Raceway still atop the NASCAR Cup series championship standings, now 11 points up on his teammate Joey Logano in second. He’s eager to fortify that points lead with a race winner’s trophy. And he’s been so close.
The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford had to pit from second place with only three laps remaining in Sunday’s race in California last weekend; he ultimately finished 19th. Dating back to last season at Talladega he has made eight starts since his last victory.
But he can take some solace in his season’s early work. He is the only driver to lead laps in every race – four in the Daytona 500, 19 at Las Vegas and 54 at California – for a total of 77 laps out front (fifth-most this season). Plus, he leads the series in average running position this season with a 6.3.
And as these performances would indicate, Blaney is capable of running up front and playing into the victory. He told reporters prior to Sunday’s race that there is a lot to be gained by the strong start and that he doesn’t hang onto disappointments.
“About 10 minutes,’’ Blaney said of pondering the tough luck finish in the season’s second race at Las Vegas. He pitted from the race lead during the final caution period and was able to race back to 11th. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano did not pit and went on to win the race.
But with the points lead and four top-10 finishes in eight previous starts at this week’s Phoenix Raceway, Blaney is ready for the race in the desert. He scored back-to-back third-place finishes in both Phoenix races last year and he’s a two-time Phoenix pole winner, out-qualifying the field in the 2017 Playoff race and again in this race last spring.
Like so many of his competitors, Blaney is eager to get some laps in at Phoenix, which will now – for the first time – host the series championship race on Nov. 8.
“It is obviously a huge race,’’ Blaney said of this weekend’s FanShield 500. “Usually you only go to [the previous championship venue] Homestead once, so you don’t have a chance to kind of get a race under your belt there in the spring.
“It is a really important race for multiple reasons, the championship and the low downforce stuff,’’ he added. “It is really important to get some good notes from there and hopefully make it back there for the championship.’’