Column: Breakthrough win for Blaney a vintage NASCAR victory
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By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR's newest winner arrived home in North Carolina to coolers filled by Dale Earnhardt Jr. with ice cold beer.
He partied until 4 a.m. and finally went to sleep after Dale, Ricky, Danica, Bubba and all the rest went home.
Back up at 9 Monday morning, Ryan Blaney watched a replay of Sunday's win at Pocono Raceway . It was then that Blaney, just 23 years old, really appreciated the significance of driving the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford to victory lane.
"It sunk in last night with my guys. It was a lot of fun to have them over to celebrate," Blaney told The Associated Press. "Some moments last night I was just like, `Man, this is so cool to win for the Wood Brothers.' Especially when I rewatched the race today."
It was the 99th career victory for the Wood Brothers, one of NASCAR's oldest and most storied teams. The team has won at least one race in each of the last six decades, but it had not been to victory lane since Trevor Bayne's upset in the 2011 Daytona 500.
Blaney, who became the third first-time Cup Series winner in the last five races this season, is only the 18th driver to take the Wood Brothers to victory lane. It was an old-school win, too, Blaney had to drive most of the race with zero radio communication with his crew.
"I was saying we should just unplug my microphone more so I'm not complaining as much throughout the race," Blaney said. "They could hear the mic key, they just couldn't hear me. I could say it put you in your own head a little bit more if you're not talking as much. I would still key the radio and I actually forgot the radio was broken after the last pit stop.
"I was trying to talk, and they're like, `Yeah, we still can't hear you.' I completely forgot it was still broken."
Blaney is a third-generation racer, the son of NASCAR driver Dave Blaney (the guy who was leading the Daytona 500 in 2012 when Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into the jet dryer, starting a lengthy delay for fire), and grandson of dirt track star Lou Blaney. He wears hats that tout the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and retro T-shirts that support his appreciation for Bill Elliott and the Hall of Famers who raced long before he was born.
It was no surprise to see Blaney in a vintage Wood Brothers shirt in the party pictures posted early Monday by some of NASCAR's biggest stars.
For fans who long for the old-school driver who appreciates the past and even finds a way to represent it a bit, Blaney is your guy.
The team has never really had the reason to sell merchandise, but one of the first calls the team received Monday was from an artist wondering what the Wood Brothers might need for Blaney retail items. Prior to his Pocono victory, the team had reached out with little success on getting more Blaney merchandise made.
"I feel like I've always been that way (a throwback)," Blaney said Monday. "I enjoy the history of the sport, and driving for the Wood Brothers has made that come out more."
Although Blaney may remind you of a young Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker or David Pearson, he is very much part of the rapid changing of the guard in NASCAR.
With 12 races remaining before the playoff field is set, Blaney, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are in because of their victories this season. Still winless? Former series champions Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, all of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Earnhardt Jr.
Blaney is part of a wave of young drivers who are proving themselves worthy replacements for yesterday's stars. Jeff Gordon is in his second year of retirement, Tony Stewart called it quits last year and Earnhardt will hang it up at the end of this season. Others will follow, since many drivers have enough money today to call it a career long before they turn 50.
This has opened the door for the Blaneys of the sport, who are landing new fans for the way they conduct themselves on and off the track.
In a touching moment on Sunday, Brad Keselowski went to victory lane and was given the Fox Sports microphone to conduct Blaney's winning interview. It was a reverse from a day earlier, when Blaney was asking the questions following Keselowski's win in the Xfinity Series race.
But there was deeper meaning to that moment. Keselowski gave Blaney his first big break - in 2012, when Blaney was 18 and he gradually earned Truck Series starts with Keselowski's team.
Keselowski got Blaney hooked up with Roger Penske, and Penske has Blaney stashed with the Wood Brothers until he can figure out what to do with him. So Keselowski is a de facto teammate, and Blaney's first boss in NASCAR.
"I wouldn't be here without Brad, to be honest with you," Blaney said. "I started driving his trucks then and led to the Penske deal, led to the Wood Brothers deal, and I would be nothing if it weren't for him and taking a chance on me."
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org
Updated June 12, 2017