Ryan Blaney was crowned 2023 NASCAR Cup Series champion on Sunday in Phoenix. Chris Graythen/Getty Images
It is no secret that Ryan Blaney is obsessed with Star Wars. He wears an elaborate Darth Vader tattoo on his right thigh. He once went viral for dressing as Princess Leia at a Halloween party. The motorcoach he lives in on race weekends at the racetrack is fashioned with custom Star Wars decor.
So, it should also come as no surprise that on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, at the most crucial moment of his NASCAR career, in a bumper-banging fight with two cars at once, one blocking his path to a potential race win and the other racing against him for a championship, that his blood pressure, nerves, heart rate, all of it, was soothed and schooled by two voices in his head, one quite literally.
“Roger Penske came over the radio and instantly calmed me down,” Blaney recalled of his car owner and boss, aka The Captain. The 29-year-old was surprisingly sharp after 24 consecutive hours of celebrating his crowning as NASCAR’s newest Cup Series champion. “Roger has seen everything there is to see in motorsports and his calm made me calm. He knew when to come onto the radio to motivate me and also remind me to reel the reins in a little bit on me.”
Like Obi-Wan Kenobi speaking to Luke Skywalker during a Death Star trench run?
Penske’s voice has been in his ear for the better part of a decade, the, ahem, force behind every ride of Blaney’s NASCAR career, from Trucks and Xfinity to his first Cup ride with Wood Brothers Racing and, since 2018, Team Penske.
The other voice has been with him since the day he was born. His father, Dave Blaney, is a second-generation Ohio short track legend who moved south and into stock cars full time in 1998, when Ryan was 4 years old. As the elder Blaney moved in the Cup Series, he developed a reputation as a man who raced as hard on the track as he was quiet when he was outside the cockpit. Dave never won a Cup Series race in 17 years and nearly 500 starts of trying. He came close so many times, most notably in the 2012 Daytona 500, when he had the lead when the race was red flagged past the halfway point when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer and caused a huge fire. The race, surprisingly to many, was restarted at midnight and Blaney fell back to finish 15th.
All the while, the father was working with his son to move him up the racing ladder. Ryan Blaney started racing against future NASCAR rivals and friends such as Bubba Wallace and Chase Elliott when they were all preteens. While the rest of the world knew Dave Blaney as one of the world’s seemingly most uncomfortable conversationalists (he was certainly difficult to interview, very polite but very short on words), his kid had a much different experience.
“Everyone knows how reserved my dad is, but my whole life he has known exactly what to say at just the right time,” the kid explained. “But I don’t know if he was ever as perfectly helpful as he has been this fall. He believed in our chances to win a championship all along, even when those of us on the team probably had our doubts.”
Those doubts were well earned. The No. 12 Ford started the season 1-for-30, the lone win coming in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway way back in May, and Blaney’s final race of the regular season ended with a 36th-place finish after crashing at Daytona.
Ryan Blaney finished second in Phoenix, ahead of title rival Kyle Larson in third, to win the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title. Sean Gardner/Getty Images
“We were pretty down and Dad said to me, ‘I can see the path,'” Blaney recalled of the start of NASCAR’s 10-week, bracket-style Playoffs that started with the No. 12 car ranked 12th out of 16 teams. Three races later, Blaney had barely made the cut into the next round, still stalled in 12th. That next round started with another crash, at Texas. Then:
“We won at Talladega, so we’re in the Round of 8, and after, Dad just said to me, ‘Now I can really see it. I can see the path to a championship.'”
When Blaney, sitting sixth in the standings, won in dramatic fashion at Martinsville Speedway, his first victory there in 16 tries, to punch his ticket to the Championship 4 at Phoenix, it was Dad who was once again waiting after the celebration, full-on sounding like Yoda himself.
“He said, ‘Now that path is lit up. … You went down the path, you made it through the gate and now you are here, with a chance to win a championship.’ He believed it all along and he made me believe it, too. I truly believed going into that race at Phoenix, and when I found myself getting too emotional, too fired up, running the risk of making a mistake because my emotions or the moment got the best of me, I could hear Dad in my head and I could hear Roger on my radio.”
That’s why Blaney broke down crying so many times when the title was finally his. After losing ground to fellow title contender Kyle Larson during the final pit stop with only 30 laps remaining, Blaney had to grind past Larson in a spirited battle in the closing laps and then keep Larson’s Chevy in the rearview mirror while Ross Chastain, who was not a title contender, was blocking up ahead to protect his eventual race win.
You can see how much this means to him! @Blaney is a NASCAR Cup Series Champion! pic.twitter.com/rymEgoA2NS
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) November 5, 2023
“I think we all talk a big game about treating this race like just another race, but that was so intense, no way that was just another race,” Blaney recalled, laughing. “So, the intensity of that, plus the realization of what we had just achieved, plus thinking about the fulfilling of our family’s dream, that’s why I was so much more emotional than I think anyone had ever seen of me before.”
He cried on the front stretch on live TV. He cried in Victory Lane. He cried when his friends, Wallace and Elliott among them, came running in to see him. And yes, he cried when he saw his father.
Anyone who saw their embrace and really knew the family likely thought of a similar hug nearly a decade ago. The lone time that the two Blaneys almost raced in this series together. It was May 2014 at Kansas Speedway. Ryan Blaney was attempting to qualify for his first Cup Series start and barely made the 43-car field on speed. To do so he knocked the only remaining car off the grid, a low-budget start-and-park ride driven by Dave Blaney.
“Here’s all you need to know about Dad, and really about us,” the son and just-minted Cup Series championship recalled of that Saturday afternoon at Kansas Speedway. “I went to him to apologize for knocking him out of the race and before I could say a word, he was grabbing me and saying, ‘You’re making your first Cup start and you had to knock me out to do it! I wouldn’t have it any other way.'”
Not that day and certainly not this day. To quote the guy tattooed on Ryan Blaney’s thigh, it was their destiny.