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ANDERS: Blaney's win stokes silly season questions

NASCAR Pocono Auto Racing
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Ryan Blaney celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono 400 auto race, Sunday, June 11, 2017, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

NASCAR Pocono Auto Racing
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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Let’s face it: Ryan Blaney's win last weekend at Pocono was awesome.

Not only was it impressive that he won without being able to communicate with his team, having to rely on old-school hand signals to give feedback on his car after his radio failed, but it was great because the 23-year-old did anything but luck into it. He ran down and passed Kyle Busch, then fought off a hard-charging Kevin Harvick to grab his first career Cup victory.

Blaney's success was fun to see because it made him the latest in NASCAR's fast-moving youth movement to win. He joined Kyle Larson, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Austin Dillon as drivers who collected their first Cup Series wins in the last 10 months.

It also added another layer of intrigue to the silly season questions permeating the NASCAR garage. Blaney's ride at Wood Brothers Racing was always meant to be temporary, as he's under contract to Penske Racing and is essentially being loaned out to drive the famed No. 21.

Penske said in early June that the plan is still to bring Blaney into the mix at Penske Racing when the team can find sponsorship to expand to a third Cup car, but there are a few things in play here, and all have a new wrinkle to them now that Blaney has proven himself a capable Cup Series winner.

  • FOX Sports play-by-play man Mike Joy said on a practice broadcast Friday from Michigan that the rumor circulating this week put Blaney into the No. 88 being vacated at the end of the season by Dale Earnhardt Jr. That would be a blockbuster deal and, given Hendrick's penchant for holding on to drivers for an extended period of time, would likely set Blaney up with some job security for years to come. It would also be fun to see him operating under the same roof as Chase Elliott, with whom he competed for rookie of the year last year.
  • Penske's two Cup cars are currently occupied by Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, but that could soon change. Logano is locked up through 2023, but Keselowski is a different story. His contract expires at the end of this season and with no deal in place yet, Keselowski told reporters this week he would like to continue with Penske. If those talks don't produce an extension, though, and Keselowski ends up elsewhere (like in the 88), that could open the No. 2 for Blaney to slide into.
  • If either of those two situations happen, or Blaney ends up in some other ride, it opens up a seat in the 21. That ride would likely be a coveted seat for a young driver now that the Wood Brothers have built themselves into a constant competitor. One option, and the one I hope happens in that scenario: Darrell Wallace Jr., who recently lost his Xfinity Series ride at Roush Fenway and is filling in as driver of the No. 43 while Aric Almirola is out.

There are some other things in play around the Cup Series that could change some scenarios. Kyle Larson looms as an enigma, as most feel his contract is up soon with Chip Ganassi Racing. Erik Jones' status as Furniture Row Racing is also a question, as that team's success so far makes it a possibility he could stick there instead of automatically shifting to Joe Gibbs' No. 20 when Matt Kenseth retires in the coming years.

Blaney, though, stands out as the important domino right now, as what becomes of him will likely affect multiple teams down the line.

PREDICTION

Larson broke through for his first win in the last race at Michigan, then won at a similar track in Fontana earlier this year. He's on the pole today, but I'm picking the guy who had a shot to win both Michigan races last year before settling for a pair of second-place finishes.

PICK: Chase Elliott.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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