Editor’s Note: This continues the series of season reviews for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers.
Driver: Ryan Blaney
Car: No. 12 Team Penske Ford
Crew chief: Todd Gordon
Final 2021 ranking: 7th
Key stats: 3 wins, 11 top fives, 20 top 10s, 423 laps led
How 2021 ended:
When Blaney left Texas Motor Speedway after the opening race of the third round of the playoffs, he was riding high and ranked second in the standings with just three races left to go in the season. Then came disaster at Kansas Speedway, when he crashed with a little more than 40 laps to go and finished 37th, dropping him to fifth in the rankings.
He could do no better than 11th the next week at Martinsville Speedway and was eliminated from the Championship 4, leaving him seventh in the standings, where he would also finish the season after the finale at Phoenix Raceway.
While one could point to his consecutive wins at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway in August as his best races, the fact is he led just the last eight laps at Michigan and only seven total – including just the last two to take the checkered flag – at Daytona.
Rather, two other races that arguably stood out even more: First, how Blaney battled back to steal the lead away from Kyle Larson (who led the previous 80 laps) with just nine laps to go to win the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Second, the 157 laps (a season-high for him) he led in the spring Martinsville race before he yielded first to Denny Hamlin (who led the most laps with a race-high 276) and then to eventual winner Martin Truex Jr.
Other season highlights:
• Blaney recorded multiple wins in a single season for the first time in his Cup career, capturing three wins (Atlanta in the spring and Michigan and Daytona in the summer).
• Blaney’s back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona sent him into the playoffs with the No. 2 seed. At that point, he looked like a serious championship contender but ended up tying his previous best season finish of seventh achieved in 2019.
Stats to know:
2021 was Blaney’s best overall single-season performance of his Cup career to date with most wins (three), most top 10s (20), most lead-lap finishes (30), career-best finishing average (11.9) and second-best career starting average (9.6). In an ironic twist, Blaney recorded 11 top-five finishes for the third straight season.
“It was a really good last run for Todd (Gordon) before he hangs it up. I wish it was a win (finished fourth). I can’t thank him enough for the last couple of years and I can’t thank this whole group enough for this year. It has been a lot of fun. Hopefully, we will be in the Championship 4 next year.” – Blaney after the 2021 season finale at Phoenix, Gordon’s final race before retiring
• Blaney will have a new crew chief in 2022, as Jonathan Hassler takes over for Gordon, who has retired. Hassler assumed the role of Matt DiBenedetto’s crew chief this past June, Hassler’s first role as a full-time crew chief in any of NASCAR’s three premier series. Blaney proved to himself and everyone else he finally could put together multiple wins in a season. And he qualified the highest (second) he ever has for the playoffs in five straight seasons.
With Brad Keselowski moving to Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing for 2022, Blaney has the chance to build upon the good he achieved in 2021 and go even further. He’s definitely a playoff contender and, with a few breaks, has strong potential to be a championship contender next season. If he doesn’t reach the Championship 4 round, it would be a big surprise and disappointment. He’s ready to step to the next level.
Follow NASCAR.com contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski