DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Leading into this season-opening Daytona 500 race week, Ryan Blaney's competitors noted what a good restrictor plate racer the 24-year had already shown himself to be.
Thursday night in winning the opening Can-Am Duel on the Daytona International Speedway high banks he made them look smart - and himself look absolutely like a Daytona 500 favorite. He did it by beating a former Daytona 500 winner in his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano and benefitting from a late race push from his best friend, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., who finished an impressive third in his Duel debut.
"Yeah, he did a good job all night, I was watching the whole time," Blaney said of Wallace. "He did a good job of picking which lane to go with when. Not having much experience in these cars, the speedways, it's hard to choose which lane to go with when. I thought he did a really good job.
"That's why I picked the bottom on the last restart. He was down there. I felt like he could give me a good push. I figured if I was clear, both lanes getting into one, I could control it and go on to win the race.
"Hopefully he can continue to show what he can do. I know a lot of people have given him not a lot of credit in the off season. I think he proved himself tonight - that he should be here and deserves to be here. I hope he can continue to do that."
The cooperation between Blaney and Wallace was duly noted by Logano, who teased Wallace in the post-race press conference.
"I had Brad [Keselowski] pushing me and then the next thing I know they wadded up behind me again and the 100-feet I didn't lead the race gave Blaney control," Logano said. "Then there were the two best friends that ever was on the bottom with Darrell (Wallace Jr.) and Blaney there. They pushed the heck out of each other."
Both 24-years old, the friendship between Blaney and Wallace is well known - lots of Twitter love, at-track support and general well-documented good times together. They both have been eagerly anticipating the opportunity to finally compete against each other in NASCAR's big leagues. And Thursday night may be a good example of what to expect this season when the stars align.
"That last restart, I was pretty proud of Ryan for taking the bottom there, stop doing all that team stuff," Wallace said, smiling. "Logano didn't like it. I gave Ryan a good shot there. I think I gave him too big of a shot. But it was a good race back to the line. I just moved up a little bit too late. Joey and I said we both would have wrecked if I went up any higher at the end.
"All in all, came home third. It's a good start for our Daytona 500."
Wallace was understandably elated speaking with the media after the race. He walked away from his car to receive a huge hug from his team owner, racing legend Richard Petty -- who even commemorated Wallace's successful debut by taking off his trademark sunglasses too.
"I have never seen him that excited before," Wallace said. "That was the coolest thing. Him coming up, huge hug. Sunglasses were off. Got to see how much he was truly excited about that.
"So that is probably the highlight of the night, better than finishing third. Just seeing how pumped he was, the words he said that were definitely words of encouragement."
The race results were encouraging for the sport in general. Not only did Blaney and Wallace show the way in the opening Duel, but 22-year old Chase Elliott won the second race and 21-year old Erik Jones finished third.
It all sets up another interesting and competitive race come Sunday; teammates, friendships, veterans and young guys looking to make a name.
"Right now, I'm just like, 'great, got through tonight,' Wallace said. "Didn't get in any wrecks, didn't make any dumb moves. Hopefully earned some respect from the veterans out there.
"It's a big reset button on Sunday. Still a lot of work left to be done before we climb in. Just so proud of my guys, what they brought to the racetrack, what they're bringing as far as attitude wise to the racetrack. Sure, as hell is fun to be around."
And the same could be said for the storylines.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---