Auto Club 400: Ryan Blaney and His Kobe Bryant Tribute Car Place 19th Just Weeks After Involvement in Ryan Newman Crash

With the Auto Club 400 taking place in Fontana, California, veteran driver Ryan Blaney wanted to pay tribute to the late Kobe Bryant and the seven other victims of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash. He did so with a custom Bryant tribute paint scheme on his No. 12 Ford Mustang and found considerable success early and often. However, Blaney finished 19th overall in the Auto Club 400.

Blaney entered the weekend with the ninth-best odds to win in the Auto Club 400. He faced 17-1 odds while co-favorites Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick faced 4-1 odds. However, Blaney was aggressive with his car and frequently led throughout the afternoon. He was in second place with fewer than five laps remaining, but Blaney's car dealt with some technical issues.

According to Team Penske, one of Blaney's tires caused some problems in the later stages of the race. He was forced into the pit with three laps remaining and lost his lead.

The focus on aggressiveness initially worked for Blaney as he overtook Stage 1 winner Alex Bowman midway through the race. He proceeded to lead a race-high total of 69 laps en route to winning Stage 2.

Blaney lost his advantage entering Stage 3 as he fell to fifth-place in the restart. He was behind Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Bowman, and Busch. However, Blaney and the Bryant tribute car continued to make moves as the laps counted down to the ultimate finish.

With this performance on Sunday, Blaney nearly secured a victory while paying tribute to Bryant. He also capped off a nearly two-week period of time in which he avoided social media. The driver of the No. 12 Ford had been involved in Ryan Newman's wreck at the end of the Daytona 500 and had been struggling with the incident.

Blaney was grateful for his fellow drivers that reached out via phone in the days following the Daytona 500. However, the real relief came when he was able to talk to Newman on the phone. Blaney had reached out to Newman's father and said that he would welcome the opportunity to talk to his fellow driver.

"That was really nice to talk to him," Blaney said. "We only talked for five or 10 minutes, but that did a lot for me talking to him. There were no hard feelings or anything like that. I look forward to seeing him soon. It's amazing how fast he has recovered from that stuff. Like I said in my little post, I don't think you will find anyone tougher than that guy. It's remarkable. As he progressed and got better, it made me feel better as well."

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The finish on Sunday was not ideal for Blaney, but he told reporters that he was not frustrated. He will simply be focusing on finishing strong during next Sunday's race in Phoenix.

(Photo Credit: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)