It had been 59 points-paying races since Ryan Blaney found NASCAR Cup Series victory lane. Turns out he needed the sport's longest race to diffuse the longest drought of his career.
Blaney led a race-high 163 laps on Memorial Day to secure a signature Cup win, the rain-delayed Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway that serves as one of the sport's crown jewel events. He fended off some quality young talent, from Tyler Reddick to potential future brother-in-law William Byron down the stretch, quieting whispers he'd fallen a step behind those fellow twentysomethings.
The toughest critic to block out of his head along the way? That would be Blaney himself.
"I'm not the most self-confident person out there to begin with..." he admitted. "It's easy to get down on yourself when you don't win. You've got to think to yourself, can I still do it? Can I compete at a winning level? So, it's easy to kind of doubt yourself."
It's not like Blaney was running 30th every week. He led nearly 1,000 laps since his last victory, Team Penske pushing out fast cars time and again only for bad luck to bring him down. Just this season alone, Blaney was a trendy Daytona 500 favorite before getting involved in a midrace crash, led 16 laps at Fontana only to get wrecked out on a restart and was in position to win Talladega before a bad Bubba Wallace block in overtime.
It hasn't helped that Penske's manufacturer, Ford, has taken a step back speed wise, winning just once during the first 13 races. At Kansas three weeks ago, a track with a similar configuration to Charlotte, just one Fusion finished inside the top 10.
"We weren't nearly as competitive," Blaney's crew chief Jonathan Hassler admitted. "So, we've had to go to work... I'm certainly proud of the progress we've made at the mile-and-a-halfs."
Keeping up with the racetrack kept Blaney ahead of the wreckage. A whopping 16 cautions for 83 laps littered a race that took nearly five hours to complete. It left the team on edge knowing the tough luck they've fought through since Blaney's last victory in August 2021 at Daytona.
"I was certainly kind of just thinking about... the bottom falling out," Hassler said of those final 40 laps. "What was going to happen next."
What did happen next was still unexpected. Blaney took the checkered flag and then jumped out of his car and into the stands. He whooped it up and celebrated with fans similar to how Penske's Josef Newgarden jumped the fence after capturing the Indy 500 a day earlier.
"I only did it because Josef did it," Blaney admitted. "I was pretty fired up. I don't get that excited very often, but I was super pumped. I appreciate everyone sticking around [through the rain delays], but I saw how excited [the crowd was], and I was like, 'you know what, I'm going to go in the stands like Josef did and have some human contact after five hours of not having it.'"
Blaney's own mosh pit is just the start of a weeklong celebration that includes the safety of a postseason bid. Unlike last summer, he won't have to spend it on pins and needles, ultimately becoming the lone winless driver to qualify last August.
Green: William Byron -- Pole sitter Byron nearly snuck away with the win despite not having the fastest car under race conditions. Time and again, his pit crew launched him back in front, a net gain of +20 positions on stops throughout 600 miles. Boasting an average finish of 2.5 during NASCAR's Month of May, his third-place result drew him within four of point leader Ross Chastain.
Yellow: 23XI Racing -- A fifth-place run for Tyler Reddick, combined with a fourth for Bubba Wallace, is the first ever dual top-5 finish for Michael Jordan's two-car operation. Both cars had race-winning speed but could never quite get the track position to show it. Reddick was the closest competition for Blaney, leading 28 laps before fading down the stretch, while Wallace had to survive a late accident, some botched pit stops (including a penalty for equipment interference) and even a shove by Aric Almirola during a rain-delay red flag.
Red: Legacy Motor Club -- The entirety of this three-car operation was in the garage by the end of stage one. Jimmie Johnson is now 0-for-3 in finishing races since his return to Cup competition, spinning out on his own at a track he's won at eight times. Teammates Erik Jones and Noah Gragson were the only two drivers in the field to experience mechanical problems.
Speeding Ticket: Chase Elliott -- All eyes are on NASCAR's Most Popular Driver this week after a blatant retaliation attempt at Denny Hamlin wrecked them both. After Hamlin's No. 11 pushed him into the wall off turn 4, Elliott appeared to turn hard left in a move that wiped out both drivers.
The incident was eerily reminiscent of a Kyle Larson-Bubba Wallace wreck at Las Vegas last fall.
That crash earned Bubba a one-race suspension, something Hamlin was clearly advocating for after his car was totaled.
"It's a tantrum," Hamlin said in anger. "And he shouldn't be racing next week."
"The 11 ran us up in the fence there," was Elliott's side of the story. "Once you tear the right sides off these things, it's kind of over... you can't drive these things. Unfortunately, [no intentional retaliation]."
Hamlin was far from convinced, posting SMT data on his own Twitter feed to support his claim.
Once again, Kyle Larson was in contention for the win only to spin himself out on a restart with 25 laps remaining. Larson simply lost it in his No. 5 Chevrolet, claiming he was "plowing tight... and then it just snapped."
The wreck wiped out potential top-10 finishes for Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, Ty Gibbs and Almirola. As for Larson? He's now been involved in a crash during 10 of the season's 14 races, a feast-or-famine resume that's left the two-time winner 11th in points.