CONCORD, N.C. — Everyone saw the catharsis that Monday will be remembered for — whether you were watching him on the Fox Sports broadcast, or you were chanting his last name in the grandstands, or you were Ryan Blaney himself.
Most probably felt it, too.
That catharsis came right after Blaney climbed through the fence gate, jumping around in a mosh pit with fans, handing the checkered flag off to a “fired up” kid he hopes to meet one day.
And it came right before he made a trip down Victory Lane, where he fist-pumped through confetti for the first time in 60 race weekends, that winless streak unfairly clouding what is otherwise the best stretch of racing of his consistent career.
“You start to get to feel like you can’t win anymore when you don’t win in a while,” Blaney said, his voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes. “It kind of gets hard. So I’m just super thankful to the 12 guys for believing in me.”
Blaney, at 29, is far from past his racing prime. But after winning Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 — the longest race the NASCAR Cup Series offers that rewards grit over flair — Blaney spoke like the aging athlete who’d been confronted by his racing virility: Has this all passed me by?
“I’m not the most self-confident person out there to begin with,” Blaney said. “So when (you) do get in doubt of your abilities to do something, it’s really hard to pull yourself out of it, at least for me personally, just because I don’t have that self-confidence that some guys have. It takes me a little bit more convincing.
“I don’t know, I don’t really have anything (to rectify that). I just always try to look forward to the next week and just try to reassure yourself, like, ‘You’re here for a reason.’”
For what it’s worth, the question isn’t exactly fair. Self-doubt queries rarely are.
Blaney finished the 2022 season with a run to the Round of 8. He was the only driver to make the playoffs without a win and was the teammate Joey Logano leaned on at times during his Cup championship run.
But a win never came. It didn’t come in Talladega last October, when Chase Elliott stole it on a last-lap pass. It didn’t happen in Talladega this season, when Bubba Wallace threw one-too-many blocks and all but gifted the win to Kyle Busch. (Wallace later apologized to Blaney for the moves.) Not at Dover. Not at Phoenix.
Monday, in fact, marked the first time he’d won a race when he’d led for 100 laps or more — something he did three times last season alone to no avail.
“It’s just nice that things go the way you hope they go,” Blaney said. “And everything’s different, right? There’s plenty of times where drivers have had the fastest car and it just doesn’t work out for them. I think that’s happened to us. That’s happened to every driver in the field. Sometimes you don’t have the fastest car, and you win the race just by circumstances. So that happens to everybody.”
He added: “But it’s nice to run up front all race, lead a bunch of laps, have one of the quickest cars out there, top two or three cars out there, and then pull it off. That’s always super cool.”
Blaney isn’t the only one who felt that pressure. The subsequent catharsis. Others could feel it around him.
His crew chief, Jonathan Hassler, certainly could. After taking the Stage 3 win — Blaney’s first stage win of the year — there were a few times when the 12 car had to come back, whether William Byron sped in front of him off pit road or a restart shook out predictably unpredictable.
The two restarts with less than 40 laps to go on Monday were met with a similar, dire expectation: that this might slip through the 12 team’s hands again.
“I was certainly nervous,” Hassler said. He added, “I was certainly kind of just thinking about, like you said, the bottom falling out. What was going to happen next, if we were going to get a caution, what the scenario was where we might have to come pit again. Certainly just focused on what would happen next and how we’d react.”
And, for once in a long while, nothing “happened.”
Another guy who understood what Blaney’s win meant was Martin Truex Jr., who finished third on Monday. Truex and Blaney shared some battles in 2022: They were the two drivers without a win who late in the season were in the Top 5 in points — and they too were bonded by various wins that never materialized.
“There’s a lot of pressure in this sport to win, a lot of pressure to perform,” Truex said post-race. The words he used to describe Blaney’s emotions on the frontstretch seemed to also apply to himself — the 42-year-old former champion who snapped a 54-race winless streak earlier this season at Dover. “He’s on a big team, and they’ve won a lot of races since his last win. And it’s just a lot of pressure.”
He added: “I’m sure he questions himself during that streak that they’re on. And he’s had many opportunities to win slip away, and those are the hardest. And that’s probably what hit him. You know, ‘Finally, we did it all right.’ I’m proud of him.”
Blaney’s win rounds out a pretty special weekend for Team Penske. Josef Newgarden won the Indy 500 on Sunday; Newgarden’s celebration of climbing into the crowd inspired Blaney to do the same once he won.
“Yeah that was a special moment, it was really cool to do,” Blaney said.
The driver then smiled an exhausted smile, fresh off a catharsis that had been building for over a year’s worth of races: “I’ll have to do that more often if I get fortunate to win again.”