As quantum leaps go, they don’t get much bigger than the one Ryan Blaney made in last weekend’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono Raceway.
In addition to scoring his first win of the season and second overall victory in 20 truck starts, Blaney jumped from eighth in the standings all the way to third, with 11 of 22 events in the books.
Now, as the series prepares for a week off before heading to Michigan International Speedway for the Michigan National Guard 200 on Aug. 17, Blaney has a realistic shot at making a run at the title in his first full season of truck competition.
There remains one major hurdle to overcome, however. That hurdle comes in the form of points leader Matt Crafton. A series veteran with more than 300 truck starts to his credit, Crafton holds a commanding 52-point advantage over second-place Jeb Burton, a rookie driver and the son of 2002 Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton.
Blaney, who also comes from good stock – his father, Dave, is a Sprint Cup Series veteran and former World of Outlaws and USAC Silver Crown Series champion – is only 10 points behind Burton, but has his work cut out for him in trying to catch Crafton.
Anything is possible, though, and Blaney believes his No. 29 Brad Keselowski Racing team has finally hit its stride after a slow start to 2013.
“We’ve gotten to that point pretty recently where I know that we have a truck to go out there and win every week,” said Blaney, 19. “I think everyone at the shop has done a great job of making sure of that and making the improvements that we’ve needed to put ourselves in that position. So, it definitely gives you a lot of confidence as a driver when you know that you’re in a winning truck and that it should be good every week.”
Entering Pocono, where he executed the winning pass with a bold three-wide move on the race’s penultimate restart, Blaney had been solid but unspectacular in his first full truck season driving for Brad Keselowski Racing – the organization owned by reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.
But Blaney, who had led only 29 laps all year before arriving at Pocono, led 20 of 54 in Saturday’s race at the triangular-shaped track, and clearly had one of the best trucks in the field throughout.
“It was so hard to pass when things got strung out, that you had to be so aggressive on restarts,” Blaney said. “I knew on the restarts we really had to capitalize on those to try to get what we could. I knew I had to be really aggressive to try to get the lead. You have to be aggressive but not overly aggressive to where you put yourself in a bad spot and you end up wrecking and ruin your day.
"So, there was a moment when I thought, ‘This is a little bit hairy. I hope we make it out of this.’ But, luckily, it all played out and we came out the other end and it turned out pretty good.”
Blaney, who ran nine of the last 10 races of 2012 for BKR in preparation for this season’s full slate, picked up career victory No. 1 at Iowa Speedway last September in only his third truck start. The time between then and Saturday’s race seemed to drag on for Blaney, even though some of NASCAR’s most successful drivers have endured much longer droughts.
“I definitely felt like it was a long time,” he said. “I knew it would take a little bit doing our transition from Dodge to Ford coming into this year, and I knew it would take some races to really know what we needed and, to be honest, I think it took a little bit too long, but it’s hard.
"It’s hard switching manufacturers, and with the bodies and how crucial they are nowadays, we really didn’t know how we needed to be with our Ford bodies, and I think everyone at BKR has done a great job of really adjusting to it and getting the best they can. We’ve been really strong for the past two months, and we just really haven’t shown it, to be able to close the deal.”
At Pocono, Blaney did close the deal, and now he’s focused on closing the gap on Crafton, whose lead is so substantial that he could skip a race and still be ahead of Burton and Blaney even if they earned maximum points.
“I think it’s getting to the point in the season that we’re going to have to start being a little more aggressive to try to get wins, and I might have to take a few more chances than Matt would,” Blaney said. “The season is halfway over and we’re a decent ways back, so we’re going to have to try to find new ways to really gain on him, and that’s all we can do.”