It may not seem like it, but Ryan Blaney is in the midst of a breakout season.

The Team Penske driver is in his sixth full-time NASCAR Cup Series season. At the quarter mark of the 2021 season, Blaney is currently on pace to have career highs in wins, top 5s and top 10s. Normally, Blaney starts hitting his stride closer to the summer, but he really got things going starting with March’s race in Las Vegas. Blaney has already clicked off two top 5’s and four top 10’s. And with a win at Atlanta already under his belt, Blaney is all about getting wins to further solidify his Playoff position.

This weekend may be another chance at a win for the #12 Ford. Blaney has won two of the last three races at Talladega and his Penske teammates came within half a lap of winning this year’s Daytona 500. Blaney will no doubt be one of the favorites, and if he can avoid the “big one” wreck, he’ll be a contender for the win.

Blaney talked to The Comeback about a variety of topics including racing at Talladega, winning at Atlanta, running the Bristol Dirt Race, and co-hosting Glass Case of Emotion.

(*Interview has been edited for clarity)

Phillip Bupp: How have you felt the season has gone for you so far?

Ryan Blaney: I think it’s gone pretty well. Obviously, there’s always things that you can improve on, but I think we’ve had a pretty decent start to season just getting our feet under us here. You’re getting into the long stretch of the year here, but having a win is always nice. Running pretty solid is really good, just got to keep it up. I think if we do that, we can be really good for the rest of the year and, hopefully, come postseason.

PB: Well, definitely the win in Atlanta helped. What was going through your mind in the closing stages of that as you were running down Kyle Larson?

Blaney: We knew that our car was super strong on long runs. Tires wear out so quickly at Atlanta, and it’s really important how you figure stuff for the end of the race. It just lined up to that was going to be our longest run of the day, and we saw him start to struggle, start slipping. Our car was staying pretty good.

We were a few seconds back, and once we started cutting into his lead, in your head, you’re like, “All right, well, we’re gaining on him, but don’t get too greedy here and burn your stuff up trying to run him down.” When you get to him, you don’t have anything left.

That was a big thing going on in my mind; just keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t abuse your stuff too much, to where you use it up in five, 10 laps, and then you’re a sitting duck.

We were able to put together a good run at the end of that race and capitalize on it. But it was just a really strong showing by our whole group to get better and better the whole race, and be able to run down the leader there at the end, and pass him with only a handful of laps to go. It turned out to be a really exciting finish, which we were on the good end of.

PB: Did you think you had a shot at Kyle if a caution were to come out, or was the green flag run something you needed, because you had a better long run car?

Blaney: Yeah. I felt like the green flag run was our saving grace. He was super fast for 30, 35 laps, and it was going to be really hard to beat him. We’d beat him off of pit road, I think the start of stage two or maybe stage three, and were only able to stay in front of him for five, six laps. He just drove right around me and drove away.

I got to go into tire save mode here and maybe we can string together a run at the end for this guy. If there was a caution, it would have been tough. It would have been really tough to beat him, but it played into our favor to where it was a super long run and saving tires was something that our car was really good at. We were able to capitalize on it. The long run is what we needed and we got that, fortunately.

PB: It should be noted that you worked the Xfinity Series broadcast for Fox before winning Atlanta. It’s actually worked out that most of your wins have come from doing commentary earlier in the weekend. Is there something that you pick up while doing commentary that helps you on Sunday or is it just merely a coincidence?

Blaney: I think it’s more of a coincidence than people think [laughter]. We’ve had really good runs the day after I do commentary for whether it’s Trucks or Xfinity, up in the Fox booth, but you do learn some stuff up there. They have a great setup up there with all this information, and it’s a really great spot to watch the racing and see the whole racetrack.

You pick up little things, but already going into the weekend, you kind of know what to expect. You’ve been to these tracks plenty of times to where you’re like, “Alright, well, this is going to happen.” But I think it’s just a good, good story. They can definitely use that as, “Oh, Blaney needs to be in the Fox booth more [laughter]. He’s won. They have really good runs whenever he’s in the booth.”

Maybe that’ll keep me coming back to the booth, but it’s a little bit more of a coincidence, but you always learn stuff up there. It’s definitely fun to do. I enjoy doing commentary for the other series. It’s a unique perspective on everything.

PB: Well, in any case, just in case people might want to put a few bucks on you, do you have any more races doing commentary this year?

Blaney: I don’t know yet. I think I’m doing commentary at the Charlotte Xfinity race. We’re doing an all-driver broadcast. Pretty sure I’m doing something there, so maybe, if you’re a gambling person, maybe put a few bucks on me (at the Coca-Cola 600), because I’ll be doing the same thing and maybe it’ll play out just like it did [in Atlanta].

PB: Well, right after Atlanta was the Bristol dirt race and given your family history of racing on dirt, I have to think that racing on dirt in the Cup Series was a bit special for you.

Blaney: Yeah. Wow, that was a very unique race. One of the first times Cup has raced on dirt in decades. I was a part of the Eldora Truck race a couple of times there, the first two years they ran it, and my dad was actually in the first one in 2013 and he ran better than I did, obviously.

But I didn’t come from a huge dirt background. My family obviously did, but everyone always thinks, “Oh, Blaney, he’s got so much dirt experience.” And I didn’t really grow up doing that. It was more my dad (Dave) and uncle (Dale) and grandfather (Lou), but I was able to talk to Dad a little bit and get his thoughts.

Obviously it’s way different than sprint cars, what he’s doing, but just understanding what the racetrack does, how they’re changing constantly through the race. That really helped me. Cool experience. It was nice to get a pretty decent run there, and we’re going back there again next year. Looking forward to having that as a repeat race. I think it’ll be really neat.

PB: Yeah, and to follow up you finished in the top 10, can’t complain with that.

Blaney: No, not too bad. We were actually really fast. We got tore up later in that race when it got super dusty and it was kind of my mistake, and we were able to fix it up pretty good. Then drive back through the field. I wish we had one more caution, because I thought we had a really fast car at the end of that thing. Just needed them to bunch up again, but overall, not a bad showing. It definitely makes you want to go back and try it again.

PB: Unfortunately, after that was the race at Martinsville. You had a great car, you were up front, you and [Denny] Hamlin most of the race, and had a late pit penalty that knocked you out of the top 10. How do you mentally get past a race like that, where you had a great car, a great shot at winning and just one mistake towards the end, gets you out of the top 10?

Blaney: Those things happen. It’s just part of our sport. People make mistakes all the time, whether it’s me driving. Pit crew make mistakes. Pit calls go wrong. It’s just part of the sport. You understand that hey, these things happen and you just get used to it. You’re just trying to figure out what happened? How did it happen, and what can we do to avoid that again? That’s the biggest thing we took away from that.

I think we learned from it, and you try to apply it for next time that to just not have that mistake happen again, but just understand that it’s part of racing. Things happen, and we’ve been close to winning at Martinsville, I feel like, a handful of times and haven’t been able to close that deal. But it’s just part of what we do. You work on ways to fix that issue and move forward pretty quickly.

PB: Well, it’s probably great that, based on how NASCAR is set up, you got 36, 37 races, that you probably don’t have too much time to dwell on that because the next race is next week.

Blaney: Yeah. I don’t dwell on races at all. Things happen and I get over that stuff. I was over Martinsville that night. It’s just, “Alright, yeah, that happened. It sucked. There’s nothing we can do about it now though.” And all we can do is talk about how to fix it. But now, let’s focus on the next week. Let’s focus on Richmond.

That’s a big thing in our sport is, like you said, we race so many times that we’re lucky we don’t have to sit around a month in between races, and be like, “Well, oh my gosh, I can’t believe we did that. Let’s just keep dwelling on it and making yourself upset.” Just move on from it, learning from it is the biggest thing. Don’t just move on from it right away. Just learn from it quickly, find ways to fix the issues and then go race the next week. That’s a good thing about our sport.

PB: That’s good. I wanted to shift gears and talk about something I’m personally a fan of, and that’s Glass Case of Emotion. Season’s on a bit of a partial schedule. When might we be able to expect some more episodes?

Blaney: We’re doing a little special edition run this year. It won’t be as many episodes, but we released one, actually, the week after we won Atlanta. Was kind of funny, we released that one, recorded it that week, and we actually just got done recording one yesterday. It’ll be out here soon this week, and I look forward to that. (NOTE: The latest episode dropped on Thursday, hours after our interview took place.)

We had a really, really special guest on that one, so soon you’ll find out, but that’s been fun. We’ve been doing that for four years, I think. This is the fourth year of it, and myself, Kim Coon, Chuck Bush, all great people. It’s been awesome to work with those two. It’s just been cool to have neat guests on the show, from other drivers to artists to comedians, other athletes and just getting a different perspective from your natural, normal race talk podcast.

When I came up with a podcast a handful of years ago, and went to NASCAR, it’s like, “Hey, I want to talk about and get to know that people outside of the sport that they do or their profession.” I feel like that’s what fans want. That’s what people want to see who follow these athletes or people with other careers. Who are they behind the scenes, who are they really?

That’s been a lot of fun to do. I’ve met some awesome people along the way. It’s led to some cool opportunities and looking forward to having some episodes this year and having some cool guests on as well.

PB: Well, that’s what I think is so great about it is there is enough racing talk to satisfy that part of it but most of it is about just about anything else. I kind of liken it to three people, three friends, just chatting at the bar over a beer. That’s really it, just that it’s open to more people listening in on you.

Blaney: Yeah, and that was the whole concept. We do talk about racing for a decent chunk of it, whether it’s… This year’s been because you can talk about a handful of races before or coming up.

You’re not talking week to week about it, but then we just talk about random stuff that’s in the news or random wacky things you just see, or just talking to the guests we have on there and see what they’ve been up to, especially during this pandemic. It’s been like, “Hey, what have you been up to in the pandemic? Any new skills you’ve learned?” Those things have been pretty fun to do. I feel like it’s a pretty healthy mixture.

PB: Given that you do all talk about a variety of things and one of those big things is movies and TV, what have you been watching recently?

Blaney: Yeah, I’m not a huge binge watcher. My girlfriend is, but I’ve never been a huge one, but we were down in Daytona for the 500. I got a little device for my TV that you can have all these, what, there’s Netflix or Hulu or whatever. I’m a big fan of documentaries. I love documentaries.

I’m a big fan of crime documentaries. That draws me in. Night Stalker was really good. That was interesting to watch. [Crime Scene: The Vanishing at] the Cecil Hotel was pretty good, kind of a mystery, but those things I really enjoy watching.

It’s a joy to watch them, unfortunate the things that happen for those documentaries to come out. But that stuff draws me in, and keeps me watching and really wondering what happens next. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries, and that passes the time.

PB: Nice. Before I get you out of here, I wanted to talk about Talladega this week. Even though it could be a bit of a crap shoot at times, you’ve been great at Talladega. You’ve won two of the past three races. What is it about Talladega and Daytona that just seems to click for you, where you always seem to be one of the top contenders?

Blaney: I think it’s multiple things. Having fast cars is obviously a help. Survival, that’s the biggest thing. We’ve been fortunate to… I survived some of them races to find ourselves in a spot to win those things, but other times you don’t survive. And it’s really not your doing, but you just get tore up in someone else’s mess.

The two Talladega races we won, they’ve been nail-biters, that’s for sure. And we’ve been luckily now on the good end of them. I’ve had ones that I’ve lost by as much as we won by. That’s just what happens to those races, and you go into the weekend expecting that, “Hey, we might get tore up in someone else’s mess.” But you still go in the race, same mindset as any week, “How are we going to figure out how to win this race, and come home with the checkered flag?” It’s been really good.

Spotters are a huge part of that. Josh Williams, my spotter, I’ve been working with him for a handful of years. He and I have a great relationship and great communication. You have to really trust your spotter at these races, and really take their word because they can see a lot more than you can. You have to really, really have a lot of faith in your spotter.

If he says, “Go in this lane.” You don’t have the time to look, think about it. “Should I go on this lane?” No, you got to go right now, and that takes years of trust and build up to really get good. Josh has done a great job for me in the past, and hopefully, we can keep doing a good job for each other and bringing home wins.

PB: What’s the importance… I know the importance of having teammates at Daytona and Talladega, but what’s the mindset when it gets to the last few laps and you might have to make a choice, “Do I go with my teammate or do I take the chance for the win?” How does that play in your mind?

Blaney: You know, that’s a great question. Your teammates are your best friends at the speedways. Your teammates or other Fords, your manufacturer partnership. We always try to find each other and work together, because strength in numbers at these races are huge. That’s what keeps you in contention and can get you to win these races.

I feel like myself, Brad [Keselowski] and Joey [Logano], Matt DiBenedetto, we’ve all worked really well together in the past, and it’s paid off. The mindset going into this weekend is the same as always. Find your teammates, stick with them, trust in your teammates, that the moves that they’re making and go with them.

You hope you’re all still in the race towards the end, that you can really go with each other and make moves together and find yourself towards the front. We’ve been able to do that in the past and hopefully it’ll still work this weekend.

PB: Alright, I’ll get you out of here on this. Coming up, the rest of the season, we got some new tracks, new road courses. What’s your mindset, your hopes, for the rest of the year?

Blaney: Looking forward to going to some new tracks. We got Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, coming up here in a couple of months. I’m looking forward to that. It’s a really cool racetrack. I’ve enjoyed watching, whether it’s IndyCar or F1 at that place. I think NASCAR is a great fit for that track.

Going back to Nashville, being the first Cup race in Nashville, I used to race Trucks and Xfinity cars there. It’s nice that Cup is going to The Music City. That’s a cool town. One of my favorite towns out there. Going to Road America up in Wisconsin, it’ll be great.

I think it’s really awesome what NASCAR’s been doing, of working with different tracks and bringing the Cup Series to new places or even NASCAR in general, to new places. I feel like it’ll draw maybe some new fans to the sport and give them an opportunity to see their first NASCAR event. Hopefully, we can put on a really good show.

I think any driver you talk to, they like going to new places and figuring out new types of racetracks or surfaces. It really is enjoyable to go to new places and try to figure them out, and figuring them out faster than everyone else, that can really make you feel good. The new place we’re going, I’m excited to go to, and hopefully we can have some good runs there and be the inaugural winner. That would be very cool as well.

PB: Oh yeah. Well, you got the Roval one, so you could add to that.

Blaney: Yeah. Yeah, we’ll have to see if we can be a two-time inaugural winner at one of these new places.

About Phillip Bupp

News editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing, highlight consultant for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

Follow me on Twitter @phillipbupp