With bad luck and bad timing of caution flags threatening to turn the Southern 500 into a long, disappointing night for Ryan Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, the rookie driver and his crew never lost their focus and came back from multiple laps down to finish 13th.
It was Blaney’s 12th top-15 finish in the 25 races run so far this season.
With qualifying washed out by heavy rains from Hurricane Hermine, Blaney lined up 20th for Sunday’s 500-mile run in front of a large South Carolina audience on a weekend in which legends of the past were honored in keeping with the track’s signature throwback theme.
Blaney, driving the No. 21 Ford Fusion with a paint scheme honoring David Pearson and his success in the late 1970s, began moving forward from the drop of the green flag.
The first 100 laps of the race ran without a caution flag, and when the first one flew for a spin by Trevor Bayne, the timing of the caution left Blaney two laps behind the leaders. Blaney was running 13th when he made his pit stop, but with the caution flag flying just after he stopped, but before all the leaders had stopped, he was trapped two laps down.
Crew chief Jeremy Bullins opted to take the wave-around, starting a series of strategy calls that eventually brought Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion back to the lead lap.
In the meantime, Blaney earned a couple of Darlington stripes from brushes with the outside wall, but the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew, in another stellar performance, was able to make the repairs and return him to competition in short order.
Finally, with just 34 laps remaining, Blaney got the free pass that goes to the first driver a lap or more behind the leaders, and that put him 19th in the running order.
He moved up two spots before the race’s final caution flag allowed him to make one last trip to pit road, where his crew gained him another two positions.
Restarting 15th with 12 laps remaining, Blaney picked up two more spots to finish 13th.
“That’s a long race to begin with, and we made it longer by having bad racing luck with that caution early in the race which put us down two laps,” Blaney said. “Then I got into the wall in (turns) three and four that caused a flat tire, then got together with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger) and we were down two laps.
“At about the halfway part of the race there wasn’t much to feel positive about, but the team kept working and battling and we ended up with a decent finish.”
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said he was proud of Blaney, Bullins and the entire Motorcraft/Quick Lane team for continuing to work hard even though a lead-lap finish seemed hopelessly out of reach for much of the race.
“They kept fighting all night long,” Wood said. “And we had a really fast car for the second-straight week.”
Wood said he also appreciated all the work that went into the throwback weekend, and the fact that more than a dozen members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame were in attendance, including his uncle Leonard Wood, who was joined by another famous Wood brother, Delano Wood.
“It was like good old Darlington,” Wood said. “It was neat to get to see a lot of my heroes.”
Blaney and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane now head to Richmond International Raceway for Saturday’s 26th and final race of the “regular” season, where the field will be set for the 10-race, championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Blaney needs a win at Richmond to join the 16-driver Chase field.