After leading Ryan Blaney forced to fight for a 10th place at Phoenix

Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Menards Ford, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 14, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney looked as though he might be the class of the NASCAR Cup series field Sunday at Phoenix. At least early on.

After starting eighth Blaney sent a strong message to the field when he first grabbed the lead on lap 44. He would be out front for a total of 35 laps and would score his first stage points of the season wining Stage 1 on lap 80.

The second half of the 312-lap race however proved to be very different for the Team Penske driver.

“Towards the end of the day I think the track kind of changed on us and we lost some speed,” Blaney said. “We were fighting stuff that we weren’t fighting at the beginning and other guys’ cars came to life and we were kind of chasing ours a little bit.”

Blaney said he and the crew tried to keep up with the changing conditions but still kept losing speed. HE finished the day 10th.

“It wasn’t for a lack of effort,” Blaney said. “We tried a bunch of stuff and tried to get ahead of the track and just couldn’t quite get there, so, for how much speed we lost throughout the day just track changing, running 10th I’m proud of that.  I’m proud of Todd and everybody for sticking with it all day and good stage points for sure and not a bad finish, either.”

Phoenix was the first short track of the season. Aside from the road courses, the bulk of the schedule is made up of 1.5-mile tracks. Blaney said he’s looking ahead and not too worried about his finish on the 1-mile Phoenix track Sunday.

“The mile-and-a-half stuff I think we’ve been pretty decent,” he said. “Obviously, I think Hendrick winning the last couple of them they’ve been really strong. The Gibbs cars are fast.  You saw that again today on a short track, but the 2 and the 22 were in the top five.  I think they were second and fourth, so I think we’re really close.

“The 22 led a bunch of laps and we led early, so I think we’re really close.  The Stewart-Haas guys, they’ll figure it out.  They’ll get to where they need to be.  Kevin ran good today, so you always have to keep working.  I think we’re close and we’re towards to top, we just have to keep working really hard on our short track and mile-and-a-half and road course programs to keep competing with these teams.”