LONG POND, Pa. — NASCAR’s next generation has become the now generation.
Ryan Blaney became the third driver to score his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win this season, with a historic and popular victory Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
Blaney joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won at Talladega Superspeedway, and Austin Dillon, who won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as playoff contenders for the first time, leading a young cadre of drivers who are challenging — and beating — the series’ established veterans.
“It’s a huge year for us young guys,” Blaney said. “It’s nice to be part of this younger group of drivers. I think we are all coming into our own right now. I was pretty jealous of Austin and Ricky getting into victory lane, and now I can add my name to the group.”
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In holding off 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick, Blaney took the Wood Brothers back to victory lane for the first time since Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500. The iconic team, founded by Glen and Leonard Wood in 1950, has won at least one race in each of the last six decades. Blaney, who became the 18th different driver to win a Cup race for the Wood Brothers, also gave the team its 99th victory.
Blaney, 23, was swarmed in victory lane by good friend Darrell Wallace Jr. and 2012 series champion and Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski. The Wood Brothers are considered a satellite team of Penske.
Blaney interviewed Pocono Xfinity Series winner Keselowski in victory lane Saturday as part of an all-driver broadcast by Fox. Keselowski, who finished fifth Sunday, returned the favor by sticking around victory lane to interview Blaney.
Roger Penske has said in recent weeks that he was exploring avenues to add a third Cup car to his stable of Keselowski and Joey Logano, and Blaney, as an affiliated driver, would be the prime candidate.
“When Ryan came to drive our car (as a part time driver in 2015), it was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “Whenever it happens, that’s fine. Everybody will move on, and he’ll go on to bigger and better and greater things.
“He’s going to win a lot of races, and I think he’s going to win some championships. Whatever we do from there, it’ll be fine.”
Blaney, like Dillon — who drives for grandfather Richard Childress — comes from a racing family. The Pocono winner is the son of Dave Blaney, who competed for parts of 17 seasons in the Cup series, most recently in 2014. But the elder Blaney was never able to earn a win in 473 races, while it took the younger Blaney only 68 races to notch one.
“Obviously your first win is special,” Blaney said, “and to do it with the Wood Brothers and at a place where I vividly remember coming and watching my dad race here so much is really special as well. … It’s just really neat to be able to get these guys their 99th win and hopefully we can go for 100 next.”
Blaney put the series on notice last season when he scored nine top-10 finishes as a rookie in his first full-time season. With one of the fastest cars in the first 14 races of 2017, it appeared to be only a matter of time before Blaney took a checkered flag.
That he was able to hold off Harvick — who has been nicknamed “The Closer” — in the final 10 laps says as much about his natural talent as his mental toughness. Blaney spent most of the event without a working team radio.
“We’ve had good cars all year. We’ve had good speed all year,” crew chief Jeremy Bullins said. “The last few weeks we’ve been really fast and just had some unfortunate things happen, but we felt like we were in a position a couple of times to take advantage of that. Today we put it all together and overcame some stuff, and it all worked out.”
Harvick stalked Blaney on every turn at the 2½-mile Tricky Triangle but could not get to his bumper to set up a pass.
“We got the track position we needed at the end, but I couldn’t charge the corner and get to his back bumper,” Harvick said. “I never could get close enough to put a ton of pressure on him. He did a great job and never missed his mark.”
Follow Ellen J. Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow.
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