‘Unbelievable’: Ryan Blaney’s NASCAR Cup Series title, in the eyes of his fans

AVONDALE, Ariz. — They traveled from all over. Chicago, Dallas, Cincinnati, Connecticut, New Mexico, Massachusetts and places in between. All were here at Phoenix Raceway because their driver, Ryan Blaney, after years of near misses, close calls and missed opportunities, finally advanced to the NASCAR championship finale and they wanted to see if he could win the Cup Series title.

Some wondered if Blaney ever would get this far in the Cup playoffs. Many times he’d been well positioned to become one of the four title finalists only for something to happen to keep him out. Sometimes it was because of a mistake he’d make, other times it was simply bad luck or something else beyond his control.

On Sunday night, though, these Blaney fans, who stuck with their driver through heartbreak and the stinging losses, finally got rewarded for their faith as they watched NASCAR president Steve Phelps hand their guy the Bill France Cup, awarded to the series champion, after Blaney finished second behind Ross Chastain but ahead of the rest of the Championship 4 field.

“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Chris Ault said. “I just can’t believe it.”

Adorned in a blue shirt and a red Texas Rangers cap on his head, holding a White Claw in his left hand and a newly purchased Blaney 2023 championship T-shirt in his right, Ault was having himself quite a week. The Dallas native had seen his Rangers win the World Series on Wednesday night, three days after Blaney had clinched his spot in the Championship 4 by taking the victory at Martinsville Speedway.

That Martinsville triumph spurred Ault into action. A Blaney fan for several years because his father was a fan of Dave Blaney — Ryan’s father, who is a legend on the World of Outlaws dirt sprint car series — Ault had promised himself for the past several years that if Ryan Blaney ever advanced to the Championship 4, he’d be in attendance to watch it happen.

True to his word, Ault, 39, immediately began checking flights last Sunday night. Prices were a bit high, so he kept scouring until Tuesday when he found a reasonable rate. He departed Dallas on Sunday morning at 6 a.m., landed in Phoenix and went to the track. His return flight home was supposed to be that same evening, but once Blaney secured the championship he changed his flight to Monday so he could stay for the celebration.

The change fee was $15. In addition to the souvenir championship T-shirt, he was also going home with confetti that he picked up off the ground.

“Last week and this week, I mean, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” Ault said. “Like seeing the Rangers go on such an improbable run in October, it’s the same thing he did. Just improbable.”

Even amid the loud music playing over the public address system and a sea of neon yellow paraphernalia — the color of Blaney’s primary sponsor — the Whitneys, Kevin and Sam, stood out among all the other fans.

Looking at their clothes and the two good-sized flags they enthusiastically waved, there was no question who the Whitneys were supporting. When Blaney walked up a platform to knock out some television interviews, the husband and wife were among the first to begin chanting his name, with others quickly joining in.

The Whitneys were here from Cincinnati and, similar to Ault, they decided after Blaney’s Martinsville win that they needed to be in Phoenix supporting their favorite driver. With their nine-year anniversary on Oct. 30, they figured this would make for a great present to one another. Almost simultaneously as Blaney crossed the finish line at Martinsville, Kevin booked their flight.

Perhaps the Whitneys are some kind of lucky charm to Blaney: They were also at Charlotte in May to see Blaney win there, a victory that snapped his 59-race winless streak.

“I love NASCAR, in general, but when your driver is in it to possibly win a championship, it’s another level. It’s absolutely another level,” Sam said. “Coming into this we knew he had a 25 percent chance of winning, so coming here to see him possibly win the championship was something we had to do.”

Kevin and Sam Whitney

Kevin and Sam Whitney made it an anniversary gift to each other to attend Sunday’s race after Blaney got in. “It’s absolutely another level,” Sam said of the experience. (Jordan Bianchi / The Athletic)

Attending Sunday’s race was no last-minute decision for Grant Salzano. He resides in Madison, Conn., but because he has family in Arizona, he frequently comes out to the area at this time of the year to visit and go to the race. And by happenstance, this year, Salzano’s favorite driver would be participating in the biggest race of his career.

Salzano’s path to becoming a Blaney fan traces back to when Rusty Wallace used to drive for Team Penske. He stayed a fan of the team, and when Blaney joined Penske many years later, Salzano became a supporter. His wife is a NASCAR fan, too, something Salzano, 34, credits Blaney for assisting.

“I’m watching the Pocono race (in 2017) and my wife’s watching with me, but she doesn’t usually watch and she’s like, ‘So I’m watching, but what am I watching for?’” Salzano said. “I told her, you got to find somebody to root for. She’s like, ‘OK, OK, let me look up who’s cute.’ She Googles Ryan Blaney and a bunch of other guys and she’s like, ‘I’m going to root for this guy.’ And then he wins the race.

“From then on, Ryan Blaney got my wife to watch NASCAR. So I’m all in on Ryan Blaney.”

It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Blaney’s fans to wonder if he would ever reach his potential. Four times previously, Blaney had advanced to the semifinal round only to then be eliminated.

That apprehension never fully left the minds of Ault, Salzano and Whitneys on Sunday, even though Blaney had finally broken through to qualify for the Championship 4 for the first time.

They worried when Blaney got into an intense duel with Chastain for the lead late in the race. That Chastain wasn’t championship-eligible only heightened their collective angst because Blaney didn’t need to beat Chastain to win the title, just Christopher Bell, William Byron and Kyle Larson.

What Blaney’s fans wanted was for him to either pass Chastain and pull away, concede the position to Chastain or follow and maintain his gap ahead of Byron and Larson. (Bell had crashed out by this point.) However, Blaney repeatedly forced the issue. At one point, with his frustration noticeably rising, he even intentionally ran into Chastain’s rear bumper to express his displeasure over what he perceived was Chastain’s overt blocking.

“F—ing right I hit him on purpose,” Blaney explained later during the champion’s press conference. “He blocked me on purpose 10 times. So, yeah, I hit him on purpose. What do you expect me to do? He’s backing me up to the other championship guy, and I got to go. We were just racing hard. But do I think he was over-aggressive on the blocks? Yes, very much so. Did I hit him? Yes, I did. That’s just part of it.”

Ryan Blaney

After four previous trips to the semifinal round all ended there, Ryan Blaney won the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title in his first appearance in the Championship 4. (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

It wasn’t long before Chastain solidified his grip on the lead and Blaney settled down, allowing him to build up a decent lead over Larson and Byron.

At this moment, If the race ran caution-free, the championship was Blaney’s. Of course, though, that didn’t happen.

Being a Blaney fan means you’re ingrained to expect the worst, Salzano admitted. This time, it was a caution caused by a Kyle Busch spin that re-racked the championship with 37 laps remaining.

“When Kyle Busch spun, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Salzano said.

During the subsequent cycle of pit stops, Blaney fell to sixth, behind both Larson (third) and Byron (fifth). On an afternoon where track position was critical, Blaney’s title hopes appeared bleak. A similar pit stop sequence had propelled Larson to the 2021 title.

“Honestly, today I was worried,” Ault said. “I was kind of worried with, what, 40-something (laps) to go yellow. I was worried I don’t think he’s going to have the short run speed to be able to do it.”

Said Kevin Whitney: “I was nervous.”

Yet on this night, there were no stomach punches, no snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. On this night, it was all about Blaney finding a way to exorcise those demons of past playoffs.

Quickly, he dispatched Byron, then went to work hunting down Larson. After a spirited battle between them, Blaney passed Larson with 20 laps remaining and would stay there. He wouldn’t catch Chastain, though that was inconsequential.

The 2023 championship belonged to Blaney. And with it all the disappointment accumulated over the past six playoff trips was no more. Both he and his fans could rejoice.

“There’s so many ‘almosts,’ and that’s why I’m like, if anyone’s so deserving, it’s him,” Sam Whitney said. “Unbelievable to see this happen.”

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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