The two NASCAR drivers arguably most associated with Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been elected to the track’s newly rechristened Hall of Fame.
Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who combined to win the Brickyard 400 seven times, will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame on May 24.
The announcement came Tuesday on “Founders Day,” the 109th anniversary of the day the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company was officially formed.
They are the first to be enshrined under the Hall’s new framework, which includes the Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis for the first time.
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, and Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, were selected from a ballot of 14 nominees by a panel of auto racing journalists, participants and historians.
“We are thrilled that the first class of inductees with our new name and election criteria honor two drivers who mean so much to fans in Central Indiana and around the world” said Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation in a press release.
As a rookie in 2000, the former Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing driver claimed his first Cup win in the Coke 600, beating Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt. It was in his 18th start (his first was in 1998).
Kenseth’s second win came in the spring 2002 race at Rockingham.
Waltrip had a lot more starts before achieving his first Cup win – 462. In start 463, Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
He didn’t have to wait quite as long to get win No. 2. That came in July 2002 in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona. All four of Waltrip’s Cup wins came at restrictor-plate tracks.
The NASCAR Hall of Famer and NBC Sports analyst also took awhile to get his first victory. After eight years and 129 starts, Jarrett got his first victory in a photo finish over Davey Allison at Michigan while driving for Wood Brothers Racing.
Blaney’s action is far from the first kind act bestowed upon a child in the sport, but it provides a reminder of what’s important for NASCAR moving forward.
“He seemed really pumped up to be at the race,’’ Blaney said of the child he handed the checkered flag to through the fence. “There were a lot of kids here today, which was really cool.
“I kind of saw a little bit of myself. I was a little kid coming here and watching races. Anything we can do to try to keep them coming back and show them a pretty great experience, hopefully he enjoyed that experience and the race.
“He was pretty happy when he got (the flag). Whatever we can do to make their day, I feel like, is part of our job, to be honest with you.’’
Blaney’s comment is a sign of how NASCAR’s elders have passed their wisdom to the next generation.
With Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards no longer racing, Earnhardt out after this season and Matt Kenseth’s future in doubt, the sport is moving beyond some of its most popular drivers who helped mold NASCAR. It also likely won’t be too long before Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, among others, retire.
Maybe Blaney’s checkered flag giveaway becomes as much a tradition as when Edwards gave his trophy to a child after a win. No doubt others do the same thing at local tracks, but what if more people did it or something similar? A driver giving away a checkered flag or trophy in NASCAR’s premier series could show competitors at various levels that while winning is special, sharing it with a child is more meaningful.
Another key aspect of the weekend, though, was more subtle.
As Kyle Busch reeled in leader Chase Elliott in the final laps Sunday, there was a moment when there could have been chaos. Instead, there was a clean pass.
Elliott could have blocked or could have forced Busch into the wall when Busch tried to pass on the outside as they ran to the white flag. Busch noted Elliott’s actions after winning.
“Coming off of (Turn) 2 there, he could have pulled up and checked my momentum, and I did kind of check up because I wasn’t quite sure, but then he gave me enough room,’’ Busch said in victory lane.
NASCAR is a contact sport and there will be such battles for wins for races to come — maybe in the upcoming second round in the Cup playoffs — but there’s also something to be said for fair racing.
Admittedly, there will be those who will recall it was Elliott who bumped Ty Dillon out of the lead to win a Truck race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in 2013. Two of the four races there since have ended with the second-place truck making contact with the leader to get by to win. It has seemingly become OK to do so at that track.
One action doesn’t make a driver a saint or a devil, it’s what they do over a period of time. The more others see how the sport’s young drivers react in pressure situations, the more it could influence drivers as they come up through the NASCAR ranks.
An episode few saw this past weekend with a young driver came from Todd Gilliland. The 17-year-old son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, entered the K&N Pro Series East season finale eight points ahead of Harrison Burton for the championship. Gilliland’s title hopes ended when a right front tire blew and he crashed before midway in the race. Burton won the championship. Despite the devastation, Gilliland answered media questions in a mature fashion.
THREE AND OUT
The winners of three of the biggest races of the season all failed to advance to the next round of the Cup playoffs.
This marks the second time in the four years of the elimination-style playoff format that there wasn’t a winner of any of those three races in the championship race.
The only driver to have won any of those races and make it to the championship race is Kyle Busch. He won the 2015 Brickyard 400 and went on to win the championship. He won the 2016 Brickyard 400 and finished third in the points.
With Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman eliminated from title contention, it means that Richard Childress Racing will go a 23rd consecutive season since its last Cup championship, which came in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt Sr.
The organization started the season with the goal of winning races and did that with Newman winning at Phoenix and Dillon the Coca-Cola 600. But the organization had a lack of speed at various tracks, showing that more work needs to be done for it to return to being a title contender. Still, some goals were accomplished this season.
Questions remain about next season. Newman and Dillon are back, but Paul Menard will leave at the end of the year to join the Wood Brothers. That leaves RCR with an opening in a car that has a charter.
Among the options for Richard Childress Racing is to run the car or lease the charter to another team for a year, giving the organization more time to find sponsorship and return to a three-car lineup in 2019. Certainly, if sponsorship can be found for next season, the team will run it.
DOVER, Delaware — Shortly after the Coca-Cola 600 ran without the Wood Brothers for the only time in the event’s history, co-owner Eddie Wood’s cell phone rang.
On the other end was Edsel Ford II, great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, a longtime supporter of the Wood Brothers.
Edsel Ford called for other reasons, but the conversation turned to the team’s struggles. Although it was late May, the 2008 season already had been difficult for the team.
The Wood Brothers failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, marking the first time since 1962 the family didn’t have a car in NASCAR’s most prestigious race.
The team failed to make the races at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Bristol in consecutive weekends. The Woods had the most wins among any team in NASCAR history at Atlanta at that time. They also didn’t qualify at Richmond before failing to make the 43-car field at Charlotte.
All that hung over Wood when he answered his phone in the Pocono Raceway garage during a test two days after the 600.
“Why haven’t we talked lately?’’ Edsel Ford asked Wood.
“Mr. Ford, we’ve run so bad and I’m so ashamed,’’ Wood said. “I’m ashamed to call you.’’
“So you’re telling me my 21 is broke?’’
“Yes sir. It’s broken. Really bad.’’
“I’m going to fix that.’’
When Ryan Blaney held off 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick to win at Pocono in June, he gave the Wood Brothers their 99th career Cup victory and qualified them for the playoffs for the first time.
For as storied as Wood Brothers history is — nine NASCAR Hall of Famers have run at least one race for the team — the organization has only one championship. The team won the 1963 car owner’s title less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Blaney enters Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway in position to advance to the next round. That the Wood Brothers are competing for a championship is remarkable considering what they overcame to remain in a sport that left many contemporaries behind.
More than 30 teams that competed in the Daytona 500 at one time or another between 2006-16 have faded away. They ranged from powerhouses to low-budget endeavors put together on a hope and a prayer.
Those teams relegated to history include Dale Earnhardt Inc., Petty Enterprises, Yates Racing, Evernham Motorsports, Bill Davis Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Red Bull Racing. They combined for 10 Cup titles and 16 Daytona 500 victories.
While they are gone, the Wood Brothers remain.
Edsel Ford II calls the No. 21 Wood Brothers car Ford’s “company car.’’
He’s not exaggerating. The Wood Brothers always have run Fords, starting with Glen Wood. He and a friend paid $50 for a 1938 Ford Coupe to race in 1950.
In Glen Wood’s first race, contact in his heat bent the rear-end housing. It didn’t seem major until afterward when they towed the car back to Stuart, Virginia. The axle broke. Gas spilled and ignited from the sparks as the car’s rear end scraped the ground. Flames shot from the back of the car and spread.
The fire eventually burned out and the damage was minimal to the engine. So a few weeks later, Glen Wood again was racing that car, beginning a legacy with Ford.
For as much loyalty as the Wood Brothers have shown Ford Motor Company, Edsel Ford II felt the same way with the team.
“We were dedicated to them, and they were dedicated to us,’’ Ford told NBC Sports.
Loyalty, though, doesn’t pay the bills and can’t always prop a team back up when it has fallen.
The Wood Brothers’ falloff was gradual, more like water dripping from a faucet instead of flowing.
Elliott Sadler led them to a 20th-place finish in the points in 2001, but the team’s performance yo-yoed through Sadler and Ricky Rudd before declining with a series of other drivers.
The organization expanded, adding a Truck team, but that didn’t prove effective. Decisions didn’t work out as hoped, and soon the Wood Brothers fell further behind the leading teams.
While they attempted to run every race in 2007, the Wood Brothers failed to qualify for two races. At Talladega, they were among nine teams that didn’t make the field. That included Red Bull Racing (AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers), Bill Davis Racing (Dave Blaney) and Michael Waltrip Racing (Michael Waltrip).
Then came the woes of 2008. The team failed to qualify for eight of 36 races.
“As far as racing goes, that’s about as bad a spot as you can be in, going to a race track and not being fast enough to qualify and race,’’ Eddie Wood said.
He and brother Len stayed at the track for the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400 (they also would miss that race that year) without a car competing.
“That’s the hardest part,’’ Len said. “You have no hauler, nowhere to go, no car to show anybody, nowhere to sit down.’’
Said Eddie: “You have nowhere to be.’’
The day after Edsel Ford’s call to Eddie Wood, another call came. Eddie and Len were told to fly to Detroit that day to meet with a Ford executive. Four hours later, they were in the air, but there was a problem. Neither had proper clothes for an executive meeting since they had been at a race. So after landing, they went to a Dillard’s department store for proper clothes.
Their meeting was postponed a day, but when it was held, it began a process for the Wood Brothers to become more competitive.
“They’re such an important part of our family, they’re an important part of our sport, Ford Motorsports,’’ Edsel Ford II said. “To lose them would have been inconceivable to me.’’
More engineering help was added. Later, another idea emerged from Edsel Ford II.
Maybe the team should not run a full season beginning in 2009.
“Eddie and Len knew that the future was going to be there, now it was just a question of hanging on and how do we get there,’’ Ford said. “I think the three of us spent a lot of time strategizing, what does the long-term look like, so we’ll have to make some short-term sacrifices in order to get to the long-term. We all knew that some of these half-seasons were not what they wanted, certainly not what we wanted, but it was going to get us there.’’
But what races to skip? Len Wood examined the costs incurred at each track from hotel bills to tire bills and more. Eventually, the team decided it would be best to run the Daytona 500 and focus on tracks from 1.5 to 2.5 miles. That way they didn’t have to prepare cars for short tracks or road courses, saving costs there.
After having attempted to run every race from 1985-2008, the team ran 13 races in 2009 and 2010.
They met at a Steak ‘n Shake for lunch.
There sat the heirs to one of the most famous teams in NASCAR history and one of the sport’s most popular drivers. Eddie and Len Wood sat with Bill Elliott.
The Wood Brothers were aligned with Roush Fenway Racing. Through it, they acquired a couple of cars and a new crew chief when they parted ways with their crew chief late in the 2010 season. Soon after, Roush requested that Trevor Bayne drive for the Wood Brothers in the fall Texas race to be eligible for the 2011 Daytona 500. It was at that lunch the Woods told Elliott, their current driver, about the change of plans. Elliott said he’d help Bayne any way he could.
After the season, there was more talk about Bayne running for the team in 2011. He ended up in the No. 21 car for the Wood Brothers at Daytona.
Bayne’s Speedweeks did not go smoothly. A rookie, few would run with him in the tandem style of that period. Then his car was damaged in an accident on the last lap of his qualifying race. With help from Roush Fenway Racing, the team repaired the car instead of going to a backup.
The repairs were perfect. The race went beyond the scheduled 200 laps, and Bayne took the lead for the first time on Lap 203. He led the final six laps to win in just his second series start. Bayne’s victory provided one of the more memorable scenes that season when Richard Petty escorted Glen Wood to victory lane.
The feel-good moment didn’t turn into much more money. The team added a few more races in hopes of enticing sponsors to come on so it could run a full season. It didn’t happen. While the team ran 17 of 36 races that season, it would be five more seasons until there was the sponsorship and support to run a full season.
Eddie and Len Wood won’t think about the possibility that in less than two months, the Wood Brothers could be champions. When you spend your life in the sport, it is dangerous to look too far ahead. Instead, focus on the what needs to be done and worry about what’s down the road when you come upon it.
Edsel Ford II can’t contain himself. For as much as he doesn’t want to look too far ahead, he smiles and his eyes widen at the thought of the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney winning the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“What does nirvana look like?’’ Ford asks.
Then he answers the question.
“I think to go to Las Vegas and be with them,’’ he said of where NASCAR celebrates its champion, “it would be pretty close to nirvana for me.’’
With the news last week that Stewart-Haas Racing had declined to pick up the option for next year for Kurt Busch, it leaves the reigning Daytona 500 winner (Busch) and Brickyard 400 winner (Kahne) without an announced ride for next season.
Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup series heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend.
— No. 77: With Erik Jones returning to JGR, team owner Barney Visser is looking to fill that seat. The first concern, though, is sponsorship. Visser told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Aug. 9: “We’ve got no sponsorship right now for the 77,” for next season. “So We’ve got to find something. We don’t want to give up that car, but if we don’t get sponsorship, we’ll have to.” Sponsor 5-Hour Energy has an option to return. The company can’t go to any other Cup team with Monster Energy as series sponsor.
Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything for next year at this point. Key could be what kind of salary he’s willing to take next year. On his future, Kenseth said last weekend at Watkins Glen: “Believe it or not, it’s really not at the front of my mind.’’
Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a chance Busch could sign a new deal to remain with the organization.
Kasey Kahne: The 2017 Brickyard 400 winner is available after Hendrick Motorsports announced it had released him from the final year of his contract. Rick Hendrick said Aug. 9 that he’s working to help Kahne land a ride for next season and hinted it could through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports.
Danica Patrick: Sponsorship uncertainty leaves her status murky for next year.
GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: This could be one of the wildcards. This Xfinity team is exploring a move to Cup if it makes financial sense. Some in the garage believe this team will move and could be a two-car team with Spencer Gallagher and a veteran driver. GMS already has an engine deal in the Xfinity Series with Hendrick Motorsports but would need to upgrade that for a Cup effort and possibly add a technical alliance (it has one with JR Motorsports). It also would need to get at least one charter, if not two.