Ryan Blaney Ready for Sophomore Season

Ryan Blaney heads into this season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing with renewed optimism and focus with this Sunday’s season opening Daytona 500 fast approaching.  The 23-year-old sophomore driver comes off a 2016 campaign in which he and his Wood Brothers Racing effort worked on consistency while gaining respect from their peers and competitors throughout the year.

Learning some valuable lessons on the track, particularly with the give and take aspect of stock car racing, Blaney looks to apply some of those concepts in his No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Fusion.  With an offseason spent with family and friends during the holiday season, a trip to Super Bowl LI, and a test session at Phoenix International Raceway, it’s safe to say that this third generation racer is prime for 2017 and ready to drop the hammer.

Whether it was some of the tracks of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to the simplicity of smells during a race weekend, Blaney’s had racing on his mind for the past few months.  In the first of our two part interview with this young gun originally from Cortland, OH, Blaney reveals his thoughts on the changes to the sport, his take on what it was like to be a rookie, and the effort involved to compete at a high level in this sport.

Rob Tiongson :  You and the No. 21 Wood Brothers team had a respectable first full season of Cup racing last year, placing 20th in points with three top-five results and nine top-10 finishes.  What were some of the takeaways from 2016 that you look to translate into success for this upcoming season?

Ryan Blaney talks race strategy with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade NKP, © 2016)

Ryan Blaney talks race strategy with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade
NKP, © 2016)

Ryan Blaney :  It’s really big to get our first full season under our belt.  I know there’s kind of a different mindset going into this season.  I definitely have a different mindset of how to approach this whole year and each race which I think will be really good.

I think our team has drastically improved as far as the communication side and working together.  We’ve brought on some new members which I think will be really good for us.  I think that we’ll be strong.  It’s just nice to get a whole year under our belt.  I think our mindset is really better going into this season.

RT :  You’ll be heading to tracks for a second, third, or fourth time around since you competed in the Cup ranks in 2014.  Are there certain racetracks that you feel favor your driving style over another?

RB :  I think drivers have some of their favorite tracks that they think they do better at or like you said, suits their driving style a little bit better.  There’s a handful of tracks that I enjoy.  Bristol’s one of my favorite places to go.  We’ve always run pretty good there and I just really enjoy the racetrack and surface.  I really like going to Texas and Chicago.  I look forward to going back to Fontana for a second time.

One place that I’d really like to improve on is Martinsville.  That’s something that has kind of given me a lot of problems over the past handful of years in the Truck or Cup cars.  I don’t think I’ve really performed very well at that track.  There’s a lot of things that I’ve been trying to do just to help out.  Really, at all the short tracks, if you look at my short track finishes, especially in the Cup series, they really haven’t been that good.  And that’s something that I really need to get better at if we want a chance to make the playoffs or to win races.

I would say I’m looking forward to going to all of them.  I used to say that I don’t look forward to going to Martinsville.  That’s not the right mindset to have so you have to be positive.  I think I named some of my favorites but I look forward to going to places where I haven’t been that good like Richmond or Martinsville just to try to improve.

RT :  NASCAR will be debuting an array of changes to the race and points format with stages for every race.  When the announcement was made, what were some of your initial thoughts and reaction to it and do you think it’ll favor teams like yours who may view these stages to be beneficial for your efforts?

Blaney zooms by at full song last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade NKP, © 2016)

Blaney zooms by at full song last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade
NKP, © 2016)

RB :  I don’t really have that mentality.  I feel like we can adapt to whatever situation that’s presented, that’s what all the teams are going to do.  I like the new format changes.  To be honest with you, I was kind of skeptical about them at first.  Once we all sat down and NASCAR really explained it to us before they announced it, they kind of changed my mindset about it just by hearing them talking it out.  I felt like I was a big fan of it by the end of their discussion which was nice to know.

I think you’re going to see a lot more exciting racing.  People wanting points that help them out throughout the playoffs, that’s huge.  You’ll see a lot of people trying to be in that top-10 of each stage.  Granted, we really want to be in that top-10 right now.  It’s going to be very crucial to be in that top-10 throughout the whole race and at the end of these stages, that’s just going to help you try to win a championship.

It’s going to be very interesting.  It’s going to be most interesting for people sitting 11th on back.  Do you pit early and try to get ahead in segment two or three to try and set yourself up for the end?  What do you do there?  Those are some of the big game time decisions that will be called by the crew chiefs and drivers to try and figure out what to do.  In a perfect world, we can run top-10 all race and at the end of segments, just keep getting points for the playoffs but it’s really going to be very interesting.  There’s going to be a lot of strategies being played so that’s really good.

RT :  As a driver, do you see the new structured format to NASCAR as a good catalyst to draw in new fans into our sport in engaging them to watch the races on TV and attend in person at the track?

RB :  I think so.  I think there’s multiple things that are going to help that out.  I think Monster Energy coming on board is a big change but a big benefit for the sport.  That’s really going to change the face of it up.  It’s going to bring in a younger demographic while keeping our base fans who’ve been there for a long time.

I hear the complaint from fans that races are too long and we can’t pay attention for that long.  It kind of gets boring.  Now that we know there’s an end to a segment or a break in the race that we’re racing to, that’s going to make people want to tune in.  I feel that’s going to benefit viewers.

RT :  With the rookie stripes off the No. 21 car, I’ve got to ask, what were some of your “Welcome to NASCAR” moments, be it in the driver’s seat or at the track during a race weekend?

No sophomore jinx here.

No sophomore jinx here.

RB :  It’s going to be nice having the rookie stripes off.  I think, as a driver, me personally, it makes you feel better and part of the team and part of the group in NASCAR.  I feel like you’re a seasoned veteran when those rookie stripes come off.  That’s going to be really nice to have.

Welcome to NASCAR moments?  You have the typical rookie hazing from veteran drivers.  Everyone goes through that.  You give a little bit more as a rookie to other drivers who’ve been there for a long time.  You don’t want to make anyone mad.

I was brought up with the belief that in order to get respect, you’ve got to give respect.  I’ve given a lot of respect to a lot of drivers who’ll hopefully returning some which at the end of last year, I start to see that return which was nice.  Just a lot of rookie hazing which you’re always going to get like a freshman in college (laughs).

RT :  Do you plan on doing the same thing as a rites of passage to someone like Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon, or Erik Jones?

RB :  You know, I’ve been able to race with those guys for a few years which has been awesome.  They’re great drivers and good people.  It’s been a lot of fun watching their careers and being a part of it.  I gave my room as a rookie and I hope to get it back.  That would be nice.  You should tell them that!  (laughs)

RT :  (laughs) I’m going to, since it’s what I’ll ask them or tell them about this ahead of time.  That’s part of my due diligence, my friend.  Now, you got to attend some of the festivities leading to Super Bowl LI.  I’ve got to ask, how was the atmosphere like in Houston and did you get to watch the game?

RB :  Yea, the Super Bowl was awesome.  It was a lot of fun out there.  Me and Darrell Wallace went out there for NASCAR.  It was my first Super Bowl.  The city of Houston was really nice and I like that place with the good Southern folks who were nice and welcoming.

We got to experience some fun things like that Thursday night.  We went to some great parties on Friday night and Saturday night.  The ESPN party was great.  We ended up getting to go to Maxim, Rolling Stones and DirecTV, which was a lot of fun.  We met some cool people.  We got to see the Zac Brown Band play which was awesome.

The Super Bowl itself was a lot of fun.  I felt like I was just a fan at the Daytona 500.  You can walk around and see the festivities going on.  I’ve never been a fan of the 500 because I’ve always been inside either racing or watching my dad.  I’ve never been denied access to a lot of things.  At the Super Bowl, we’re just fans.  We’re not competing or anything like that.  We got to go and hang out outside with all of the things that were going on which was nice for a role reversal so that was really neat.  It was a definitely a once in a lifetime experience and I was lucky to be part of it.

RT :  That’s cool for you to have that out of body experience.  When you got to witness the kind of historic comeback led by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, does that you motivate you with your racing efforts?

RB :  The comeback that they made was incredible.  I don’t think anyone’s ever done that before.  I’m a big Tom Brady fan and I’ve really enjoyed watching him play for as long as I remember.  I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks of all-time.  I know that he’s definitely a first ballot hall of famer – easily.  That was really cool to see him do his thing.

It’s incredible to me in those games where a team can get destroyed like they did in the first half, where Atlanta picked them apart and showed them no mercy.  Then they go in at halftime, calm and relaxed like the Patriots always do, and they pick out things that they were doing wrong.  “We’re doing this, this, and this wrong, let’s try to fix those.”  Then they go out and do just that.  They were a completely different team and that’s rare to see.

In racing, that’s rare as well.  It happens but not often where a car is running really bad at the beginning of a race, then you work on it a ton and don’t give up on it by diagnosing what you can do better.  Then you go out in the second half of a race and you can go out there either win it or turn your day around.  I’ve been a part of that a little bit and it’s incredible.  To see that was a once in a lifetime experience so that was neat to see.

RT :  You may have gained some New England Patriots fans with what you just said.  That’s cool that you got to experience that.  Now speaking of Super Bowl type events, you have the Daytona 500 coming up soon.  While you don’t get to have much of an offseason, do you anticipate the start of the season and chasing after another chance to win races and contend for the championship?

Ryan Blaney may be telling a good joke during the media tour. (Matthew T. Thacker NKP, ©2017)

Ryan Blaney may be telling a good joke during the media tour.
(Matthew T. Thacker
NKP, ©2017)

RB :  Yea.  It’s a long season for sure and I got my first take of a full Cup season last year.  It’s nice to have a little bit of a break especially when I did the last 16 or 17 straight weeks.  Once you get done with the holiday festivities, like the day after Christmas, I’m really itching to get back into a racecar.  I’m ready to go.  It was good to test at Phoenix last month.  That was a lot of fun to get back in a racecar.

I miss the smell of racetracks and racecars or the smell of an engine warming up.  Then you start smelling warm oil.  After a run, you begin to smell hot tires and that smell is one of the best smells ever.  I’ve had that since I was a kid in my karting days or late model days.  The smell is what I miss the most.  And having the two days working with your team is awesome in trying to diagnose the car.  The challenging part is one of the most fun things to me in trying to make the car go faster and drive it to the limits.

It’s definitely time to get back in a racecar.  We’ll be back in a car at Daytona so it’s about time.  I’m getting antsy.

RT :  It’s like the first day of school but you’re earning points instead of doing homework and doing tests.  I like what you said about the smell of the racetracks.  Once you get the sensation of being at the track, it’s unlike any other.  Some people might think we’re crazy unless you understand this sport.

RB :  (laughs) I don’t know man.  It’s one of the best things.  It’s a different smell.  If they could ever make a cologne like that, I’d wear it everyday.  It’d be great!

RT :  I think Sunoco tried to do something like that a couple of years ago…

RB :  It’s OK, man.  That just smells like gas.  They tried to do “Burnt Rubber” but it was sorta bull. (laughs)  It was a joke.  (laughs)  But yea, I’d wear it.  I’d make millions off that cologne so maybe that’s a good retirement idea.

RT :  You do that and you’ll have to align that with your mom and sister’s boutique!  You’re quite the entrepreneur.

Author’s Notes :  We’d like to thank Ryan for taking the time to talk racing with us.  Photos accompanying this piece are courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography and Getty Images North America.  Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Ryan this Friday evening!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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