LOS ANGELES — For anybody who thought Ryan Blaney wanted to start his championship defense with some dramatics, it was definitely not on his agenda.
After all, passing at the 0.25-mile Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum can be a tricky proposition. Whether it was a rookie like Zane Smith or the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, the temporary short track at the famed sports venue proved challenging for stock car’s young stars.
Fortunately for Blaney, despite posting the 26th fastest effort in the practice/qualifying session, he netted the provisional starting spot of 23rd. As the highest ranked driver who did not transfer into the race with his qualifying effort, the newly minted champion had a chance to redeem himself on Saturday night.
The climb was slow and steady for the driver of the No. 12 Menards/Great Lakes Flooring Ford Mustang Dark Horse entry. However, the 30-year-old Hartford Township, Ohio native showcased his trademark, methodical driving in the 151-lap Busch Light Clash.
When drivers like Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Joey Logano and Ty Gibbs tangled on the track, Blaney’s car was relatively pristine. In the words of the late Benny Parsons, Blaney had a “where did he come from” kind of drive to net a third place, bronze medal effort.
Following the exhibition race, Blaney counted his blessings to not only earn a podium finish. He survived the short track battlefield in Southern California.
“The plan was not to take a provisional,” Blaney said. “Our group was pretty slow. I guess we just couldn’t go, so we were lucky that we got in the race and then we did a good job all night. We just kind of stayed clean and our car was fast too, to just kind of drive up through the field. A couple of restarts went our way to where our lanes went. I had a shot.
“I got a terrible restart on the last one, but I probably wouldn’t have won anyway. We came from a long way back, so it was fun. I think every time I’ve been here I’ve been spun backwards two or three times, so it’s nice not to have that at the last one. It’s good.”
Likewise, Blaney commended the sanctioning body, race and venue officials for the Busch Light Clash’s relatively smooth execution. Given the intense storms forecast for California on Sunday and Sunday evening, the exhibition race was moved up a night to ensure its completion for the fans and competitors in Los Angeles.
Unlike past Clashes, this year’s edition also spotlighted the NASCAR Mexico Series, a doubleheader not lost with the popular racer.
“The demographic and the way that they kind of pulled the trigger on today trying to get it in,” he said. “I think that was really smart by NASCAR. Maybe it doesn’t show in the stands just because of what it was, but it gets a lot of support and you also have the NASCAR Mexico Series here too. I think that’s good as well to kind of grow their side. It’s a neat area to do it in.”
With the Clash in the rear view mirror, Blaney turns his attention to this year’s “Great American Race.” A bridesmaid twice over at Daytona, the third generation racer hopes to win this crown jewel race in two weeks.
“You’ve got to win the 500,” Blaney explained. “You need to have a shot at winning the 500. That’s what’s next. Try to just keep getting milestones for RP and try to win historic races and bring more championships and stuff like that.
“That’s just the main goal. Them winning the 24 was great, but now it’s like we have to do it again in Daytona here in a couple of weeks. We’re usually fairly decent at trying to continue to stack on big wins from the other race teams that he has, so that’s top of the list right now.”
For the rest of Blaney’s career, his fire suit will adorn the word “champion” on his NASCAR Cup Series logo patch. Regardless of any additional accomplishments, Blaney knows he is immortalized as one of 36 different drivers to win the Cup championship.
“That meant a lot,” he said. “It did mean a ton. It was one of those things that was like a month removed from all those celebrations and it’s in the new year, but you see that – you get the trophy, you get the Goodyear car, you get the ring and then once the banquet is done that stuff is over.
“You’ve got all of that stuff, but then it’s a nice little refresher for the new year when you pull out the fire suit from the bag and you see the champion logo beneath the NASCAR logo. That part was nice. You look at that every morning, at least I will on race day. You look at it and it’s one of those little things you notice. It’s kind of a nice little reminder.”