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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.”

NASCAR America: Erik Jones on why he doesn’t make friends with his competitors

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Back in April Erik Jones told reporters at Daytona International Speedway that when it comes to friends, he brings his to the track. He doesn’t get too close to his fellow drivers in the garage.

On NASCAR America, Jones talked with Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett about the origins of that mindset.

“My dad was always big on it, because at first when I started out my racing career in go karts I just wasn’t that aggressive,” Jones said. “He was like, ‘we bring our friends to the race track. You need to go out there and get aggressive. If you’ve to move someone out-of-the-way, do it.'”

Since then, Jones said his philosophy “never changed.”

“We show up, it’s a late-model team, it’s me a three guys so it’s like, ‘I’ve got all my buddies I need right here,'” Jones said.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones’ racing roots in Byron, Michigan

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After a feature looking at his upbringing in Byron, Michigan, Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones spoke with NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Marty Snider about the early years of his racing career.

The journey to his NASCAR career began with a yard cart that his late father, Dave Jones, brought home one day when he was 3.

“I rode that all day long around the yard,” Jones said. “Winter time would and we had like a gravel circle driveway in front of our house. When it would snow over I would get the kart out and ride it around in the snow because I could slide and I thought that was pretty cool. I would get it stuck about every five minutes out in the snow.”

Jones would then get out of the kart and find his dad in their barn to come out get him out.

Now 21, Jones also discussed how much his dad was involved in his career until his death in June 2016 after a battle with cancer.

He also explains how he’s never stayed in any series for more than one year in his career.

Watch the video above for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland

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“I sure as (expletive) hope that’s all out of our system.”

That’s what Kyle Busch had to say over his radio after he finished 15th, a lap down in the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Busch’s day went south after the first stage thanks to two pit miscues the sent him two laps down.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. dominate the field to win his fifth race of the year and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

In the latest “Scan All,” True and crew chief Cole Pearn recap their day, which saw them bounce back from their own pit road mistakes.

Here are other highlights from this week’s “Scan All.”

  • “Can’t drive in a straight line. Something’s not right with the front end.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just before he made contact with the outside wall. A commitment line violation resulted in Stenhouse finish multiple laps off the lead.
  • “Tell the 1 (Jamie McMurray) I don’t know what happened there but we both got the short end of the stick.” – Ryan Newman after contact between him and McMurray sent McMurray spinning on a restart.
  • (Expletive), that 24 (Chase Elliott) can be so much (expletive) faster than us.” – Kasey Kahne after being told he was two laps down.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones recounts rookie Cup season, being taught by Kyle Busch

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Erik Jones, the rookie driver for Furniture Row Racing in the No. 77 Toyota, joined NASCAR America Wednesday for a special show from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The 21-year-old driver won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title and is teammates with Martin Truex Jr.

With Marty Snider, Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte, Jones discussed the challenges and lessons he’s faced in his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

“The biggest (milestones) for me were trying to win a race and making the playoffs,” Jones said. “Obviously, making the playoffs didn’t happen. … I look back at the last few seasons and rookies that have been in the sport and it’s so hard to win races now. You just don’t see rookies do it a lot.”

Jones also discussed finishing second to Kyle Busch in the Bristol night race and his relationship with the driver who brought him into NASCAR beginning with the Truck Series.

“A lot of times when I was racing in Trucks and Xfinity and Kyle would come to race I’d always run second to him,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘you know what the problem is? This is the guy who taught me how to race these cars. So I’m good at all the same tracks he’s good at. Except he’s been doing about 10 more years than I have.”

Watch the video for more.