In Ryan Blaney, NASCAR has a champ with the star potential it needs


AVONDALE, Ariz. — Becoming a NASCAR champion hands the winning driver a unique platform, if they choose to use it.
Some don’t have the personality to take advantage of the increased attention and media opportunities. Others are disinterested in going beyond their normal obligations.
But like an airplane passenger in the emergency exit row, Ryan Blaney is both willing and able to assist.
Blaney, the newly crowned Cup Series champion, has always been willing to do whatever is asked of him to help promote NASCAR.
He was one of the first drivers to have a weekly podcast (“Glass Case of Emotion”), has made extra trips to Los Angeles to do some NASCAR-placed acting (in TV series like “Magnum P.I.” and “Taken”) and made countless appearances on TV talk shows and radio programs outside of the typical racing media.
But Blaney did all of that while being a driver with little to show for his career accomplishments. Prior to this season, Blaney had seven career wins and only one year with multiple victories. NASCAR was marketing his youth and potential more than actual substance.
The last month has changed all that. Blaney shook off a summer of struggles and slow cars to take advantage of a playoff format that rewards teams for getting hot at the right time. Now, after finishes of 2-1-2 to end the season, Blaney is suddenly a NASCAR Cup Series champion for the first time.
That raises a couple questions: What kind of champion will Blaney be, and what can NASCAR do to market the affable racer?
We at least know the answer to the first part.
“I’m excited to have those opportunities. I really look forward to facing them head-on,” Blaney said Sunday night. “If you get the privilege to be a champion of your sport, it is part of your job to promote your sport and do the best you can to be the best champion that you can.
“You have this awesome platform now to where you’ve done something incredible (and can) use that to promote the sport.”
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Again, Blaney was already eager to help however he could. Most recently, the 29-year-old has been one of the key participants in the upcoming Netflix docuseries, and he opened the doors to the TV cameras to give filmmakers “a lot of inside stuff.”
It’s easy to envision how that show will portray Blaney: A driver who was haunted by major mistakes in pressure-packed moments in the past, he completely reversed that reputation in a single playoff run while the cameras were documenting all of it. He is funny, kind, fan-friendly and has a deep racing heritage.
That certainly checks a lot of boxes in building him into a star. But in order to take advantage of Blaney’s marketability, NASCAR will need to push him into the public eye beyond just a Netflix series. That starts Tuesday, when Blaney flies to New York for an initial round of media appearances.
The plans beyond that remain to be seen, but at least the potential is there. That’s crucial for NASCAR, which has a star power problem that has been concerning of late. TV ratings dipped this fall, and the young group of Championship 4 drivers (Blaney, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron) largely didn’t resonate with mainstream sports fans.
That has created a broader conversation in the industry about how the current generation of drivers can begin to reach the level of fame achieved by past greats like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
“Our drivers are fantastic,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Friday. “They’re interesting. They’re heroes when they get into the race car. We need to expose them in a greater way to both existing fans — nurturing that relationship with the existing fans — and future fans.”
Blaney becoming champion won’t change that overnight, but it certainly presents NASCAR with an opportunity.
(Photo: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)


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