By Dustin Albino

AVONDALE, Ariz. — It doesn‘t seem like it was long ago that picking Ryan Blaney to advance out of the opening round of the 2023 playoffs was a questionable decision. Now, he and the No. 12 team are laughing at that thought, as Blaney competes for the championship this weekend at Phoenix Raceway. 

Aside from dominating the Coca-Cola 600, the first 30 races of the 2023 season were relatively disappointing for the No. 12 team. Through the first quarter of the season, Blaney earned a single top-five finish at Phoenix, placing runner-up to William Byron. He was in position to win the 10th race of the season at Talladega Superspeedway before tangling with his best friend Bubba Wallace on the final lap, allowing Kyle Busch to squeeze by for the win. Blaney followed that up with his best performance at Dover Motor Speedway, finishing third. 

Blaney earned his first crown jewel win at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Memorial Day Weekend. He followed that up by leading 83 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway before dropping to sixth in the finishing order. That was the first of 16 consecutive weeks the No. 12 team failed to crack the top five. Half of those races he finished outside the top 20. In the 15 races between Sonoma Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway, he posted just four top-10 finishes, all of which were ninth-place efforts. 

Redemption crossed Blaney‘s plate at Talladega in the fall, as he won the middle race in the Round of 12. That marked just the second time in his eight full-time seasons that he won multiple races. 

The Round of 8, however, is where the No. 12 team excelled. Blaney kicked off the round with a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before having his best race to date at Homestead-Miami Speedway, finishing second to Christopher Bell. Blaney dominated the second half of the Championship 4 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway to earn his third win of the season, tying his single-season high (2021). 

With positive energy surrounding Blaney, he‘s turned some of those pre-playoff doubters into believing he could realistically outduel Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and William Byron to win his first NASCAR championship. 

“I think what we’ve been doing the last three weeks, we’re capable of winning the championship,” Blaney said at Thursday‘s Championship 4 Media Day. “The execution we’ve had has been pretty remarkable. I feel like we had the best speed and best races out of anybody in the round of eight. You just hope to keep doing that. Our group can.

“This group is definitely poised to do it. We had a good shot at it last year. I think we learned from what kept us from winning a championship last year and have been able to apply it this year.”

The mistakes Blaney learned from in 2022 were a late-race spin at Las Vegas and missing a shift at Homestead. Both incidents were catastrophic in his chances of making it to Phoenix.

Blaney has experienced a maturation process in 2023. He‘s always working on improving.

“You’re always trying to find things that you can do that make you better, whether they’re speed on the track, whether they’re at the race shop, preparation, things as a driver,” he said. “You just hope all those things come together at some point, and they all complement each other.

“I think that’s what’s going on right now, is everything is playing off of each other, everyone is doing their job really well right now and their confidence is high.”

During championship week, the work process has been a bit more extensive. Blaney and second-year crew chief Jonathan Hassler are in constant communication going over the No. 12 team‘s game plan for the upcoming weekend. 

Always calm, cool and collected, Blaney is also trying to keep an open mindset entering the weekend. He wants to enjoy the moment and take it all in, knowing that opportunities like this are hard to come by. 

“You never know what’s going to happen, right?” he said. “You could never be here again. You have to appreciate it while you can but at the same time don’t lose focus on your job, your task. There’s still a big task to do.

“It’s been a pretty good week. I’ve really enjoyed it. All week, I’ve just been itching to get here. I wanted to get here and get going and keep riding this wave that we’ve been riding.”

With one of the longest — and most important — practice sessions of the season looming on Friday, Blaney is laser focused on Phoenix. It‘s a place where he‘s had a multitude of success, earning 10 top-10 finishes in 15 career starts. All three of his Next Gen starts at the track have ended inside the top five, including consecutive runner-up results entering this weekend. 

It‘s a track that he and Team Penske have a knack for. 

“Especially this Next Gen car, we’ve been really strong,” Blaney said. “Had a great shot to win this thing in the fall last year. Had a good shot to win it in the spring this year. Hopefully, you can bring that same speed and build on what you learned.

“I feel like we’ve always done a really good job no matter what size track. If two different ends of the speedway are very different, we do a good job of making both pretty good. I look at Texas, I look at Gateway and [Phoenix] is similar to that. We just do a good job at it, of figuring out what we need to be travel-wise, setup-wise.”

Blaney had been close multiple times at Martinsville in the past before breaking through to Victory Lane last weekend to clinch his spot into the Championship 4 battle. He‘s hoping to do the same at Phoenix.

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