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Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers preparing to pursue first Cup driver title

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Ryan Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing are in uncharted territory.

Neither the 23-year-old driver nor the historic racing team has taken part in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff system, regardless of format.

The team clinched a spot in the postseason when Blaney won his first Cup race in June at Pocono Raceway.

Three months later, Blaney would like to get to the second round with as little fuss as possible.

The first round features Sunday’s opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. NBCSN), then goes to the flat, 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway before concluding at the high banks of Dover International Speedway.

“The first round is the one I’m honestly most worried about,” Blaney said Saturday night after finishing 18th in the regular-season finale at Richmond. “Just because we have New Hampshire in there. And we broke at Dover earlier this year, which is unfortunate. This first round is kind of all about not making mistakes.”

Blaney finished 19th at New Hampshire in July. At Dover in June, an axle on the No. 21 Ford broke, leading Blaney to finish 33 laps off the lead. Blaney said it’s been “hard” for him to figure out short tracks with the current car and tire combinations.

“I think this team is good enough to easily make it past the first round,” Blaney said. “It’s just us doing our job and not doing anything foolish. Then I think we can go on to the second round and realistically try to win one of those races. I think our mindset will change. Just gotta make it through the first one.”

Chicagoland is a potential bright spot for Blaney. In his first start there last year, he led eight laps and finished fourth for his third top five of the season. The 1.5-mile track is also one of three playoffs tracks the team was able to test at earlier this year along other playoff drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

“Having the opportunity to test at the first track was good in a lot of ways,” said crew chief Jeremy Bullins in a Monday teleconference. “It gave us the opportunity to work on our setup for there, but it also gave us the opportunity to try some things to make our cars better that you don’t get the opportunity to do on a race weekend, so hopefully all of that will parlay into some performance to kick this thing off.”

Though Wood Brothers Racing has been competing in NASCAR since 1953, the organization has never won a Cup driver title, even in its days with David Pearson behind the wheel.

The last time the Wood Brothers finished in the top 10 in points was with Morgan Shepherd in 1993 and ’94.

“This is a first for Len and I and our team,” said co-owner Eddie Wood. “We did win an owner’s championship, our dad and uncles did in 1963. It’s been a long, long time, but this is very special to us because this is the first time we’ve actually been involved in the new format. It’s kind of a do-or-die format. … In the past few weeks, there have been a lot of things (Bullins) been going over and getting ready for, but just the sheer excitement of being a part of that is something new to us and I’m really excited about it.”

The team has all the confidence in Blaney, who is in his second full-time season of Cup racing.

“Ryan is a special talent,” said Eddie Wood. “He’s only 23 years old, but he’s got the maturity in the race car of a veteran that has raced for a number of years. I think that’s one of his special qualities is he seems to be able to adapt to different things. He gets up to speed really quickly everywhere we go. Even last year when we started the full schedule, there were a lot of places he had never seen, and before the time we got ready to qualify he was already up to speed. That takes a special kind of guy. I think you’re gonna see a lot out of Blaney in the future for a long, long time.”

Should Blaney win in the first round or at any point in the final 10 races of the season, it would give the Wood Brothers 100 total Cup wins. When Blaney won in June, a picture of him was added to a wall of portraits at the team’s museum in Stuart, Virginia, for every driver that’s visited victory lane for the organization.

“Ryan came to our museum early on in 2014 or 2015 and we talked about having a spot on the wall for his picture,” Len Wood said. “I think he made that his mission to be one of the winners that had driven the 21 car. He values the history. There aren’t many people right now who do that like he does. He wears the old hats and old T-shirts, things like that, and, of course, we’d like to get number 100 next week at Chicago. Nothing would be better than that.”

Truck practice report at Atlanta

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Justin Haley was the fastest in the first of two practices Friday for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He had a top lap of 178.029 mph.

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was second with a lap of 177.040 mph. He was followed by Myatt Snider (177.040 mph), Stewart Friesen (176.995) and Noah Gragson (176.589).

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Truck practice will be from 4:05 – 4:50 p.m. ET.

Click here for Truck 1 practice

Police investigating vandalism, theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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The Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of vandalism and theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the track, which last hosted a NASCAR Cup race in 1996, suffered damage of about $10,000 when several trespassers were on the grounds last weekend. No arrests have been made.

The report states that several windows were broken and other damage was done to the structures. Also, large amounts of electrical wire and circuit breakers were reported missing.

The investigation continues.

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1949-96. Winners included Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who won the final race there.

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Others’ predictions motivating Austin Dillon after Daytona 500 win: ‘I guess they don’t believe it yet’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Fresh off the greatest victory of his NASCAR career, Austin Dillon already has motivation to win the next.

The Richard Childress Racing driver heard others predict this week that the Daytona 500 would be his only victory this season.

“I think on Race Hub, Brad (Keselowski) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) saying that we weren’t going to win again,” Dillon said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So, that was good to hear. That was something to get me fired up a little bit more and our team, get those competitive juices flowing again. So, we will just keep rocking it however we can. We still have a lot to work on.”

Prior to Daytona, Dillon’s lone win in four seasons as a full-time Cup driver came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. His No. 3 Chevrolet qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, but his top 10s (13 to four) and average finish (15.9 to 18.6) slipped demonstrably from 2016 to ’17.

“So yesterday in my group text with my buddies they watched Chad Knaus and Brad Keselowski, and it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to keep knocking them down, I guess they don’t believe it yet,’” Dillon said. “We’ve got to step up though at RCR. We’ve still got a lot to prove. It’s a speedway race, even though it’s the biggest race in our deal, it’s a speedway race.  We’ve got a lot more to prove.

“(Competition executive) Andy Petree and all the guys are RCR are working hard. I think coming down to a two-car team move is big for us. We’ve got to take advantage of that. I’m not going to lie, I’m tired right now, but we are going to kick butt this weekend and get back regrouped and get in the groove and try and gain as many bonus points as we can.”

But qualifying for the playoffs by winning the season opener should be a morale booster that avoids any letdown.

“The one thing they don’t have right now that we have is a win,” Dillon said. “So, we are on top right now, and no matter what they can’t take that away, and we are going to keep working.  I don’t expect us to lay down at all. I feel like now more than ever we need to go head on and go after it.”

Xfinity practice report from Atlanta

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Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in the first of two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bell posted a lap of 178.447 mph. He was followed by Joey Logano (177.323 mph), Cole Custer (175.933), Ryan Reed (175.688) and Kevin Harvick (175.487). Daytona winner Tyler Reddick (175.388) was sixth on the speed chart.

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Xfinity practice will be from 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET

Click here for practice 1 report