Wood Brothers Racing

Ryan Blaney embracing underdog status in first playoff run

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Even though his first shot at a NASCAR Cup title will come against drivers he grew up admiring, Ryan Blaney believes that won’t phase him in his first Cup playoff appearance.

“I don’t really get intimidated,” Blaney said Wednesday at the NASCAR Cup playoff media day in Charlotte. “These drivers are people just like us. I’ve watched them when I was younger. I’ve watched a lot of them. I’ve been big fans of a lot of them when I was younger growing up in this sport, and I just think it’s really neat.”

The 23-year-old driver for Wood Brothers Racing didn’t fully appreciate his inclusion in the playoffs until last Saturday.

After finishing 18th at Richmond, Blaney was presented as one of the 16 drivers who would compete in the playoffs, thanks to his win at Pocono Raceway in June.

“That part was very neat after Richmond to stand up there with 15 other drivers and get your picture taken with the trophy and realize, ‘Hey, I deserve to be here too,'” Blaney said. “Our team deserves this opportunity and this chance to be here. That was very special for me.

“I’ve wanted to be a part of that ever since they started that and I saw it as a kid. It was neat to be up there with some people you looked up to as a kid, as well as some of the younger drivers that you’re competing against.”

Blaney doesn’t enter the playoffs with a full head of steam. In the 12 races since his Pocono victory, the first of his Cup career, Blaney has four top 10s, but no finish better than eighth. That stretch includes two DNFs at Daytona and Indianapolis.

Blaney, pursuing the first NASCAR championship for the Wood Brothers since 1963, acknowledges the team got caught looking ahead to Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway and the following nine races.

“These playoff cars are always getting built and our Chicago car has been in the works for a long time,” Blaney said. “They’re constantly changing, whether it’s setup stuff or body or modifications they find throughout the week. We’re changing stuff today, just last-minute things that the aero group finds or the engineers find that we think will be better.”

The driver of the No. 21 Ford – who will be joining Team Penske next year –  knows he and the rest of the field will likely be chasing Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch in pursuit of the title.

“Hopefully, we can get some of that performance to where we can compete with those guys every single lap,” Blaney said. “I know the last couple months we haven’t had the best of runs, and that’s really not a lot of car performance, but things not happening our way or taking more chances than we probably should after we got a win at Pocono just because we could do that and take more chances of trying to win races or stages and them not playing out for us.

“It’s hard to kind of see where you stack up before Chicago. Even Darlington, the last mile-and-a-half, it’s hard to really even see where you line up there because it’s such a unique race track and Richmond is hard to kind of tell.”

Blaney joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in being in the playoffs for the first time. Both of them and Austin Dillon got into the playoffs with their first Cup wins.

Though he has fewer wins this season than the Truex’s and Larson’s of the series, Blaney said he doesn’t mind being called “an underdog or dark horse.”

“That means if you exceed expectations you kind of know that it’s even that much cooler and better when you can do that,” Blaney said. “I don’t mind being called that, but I do think we are viewed as that.”

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Silly Season heats up with more driver moves

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Tuesday brought the news that Danica Patrick won’t be back with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season and that Aric Almirola also won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2018.

Neither driver announced their plans for next season. Other drivers who have not announced 2018 plans include Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne and former champion Matt Kenseth.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup playoff are set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

William Byron will drive the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Danica Patrick is out after this season at Stewart-Haas Racing. No replacement has been announced. 

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season.

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch told reporters Aug. 5 at Watkins Glen that “there are a couple of offers already, so we’ll see how things work out.’’  

— No. 43: Richard Petty Motorsports announced Sept. 12 that Aric Almirola will not return to the team. Smithfield also is not returning. Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports exchanged terse statements about their parting. RPM is selling Darrell Wallace Jr. to prospective sponsors.  

— 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.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything announced for next year at this point. At Bristol, Kenseth was asked about his plans for 2018. He said: “I’ll be honest with you … I’m not worried about (2018) even really one percent anymore to be honest with you. I’m just not concerned about it.’’  

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 good chance Busch signs a 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 be through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. 

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Aric Almirola: Won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports, team announced Sept. 12.

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: GMS Racing confirmed on Aug. 30 that it will not have a full-time Cup entry in 2018. The organization, which fields teams in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, had looked into moving to Cup.

Darrell Wallace Jr.: Richard Petty Motorsports is selling Wallace to prospective sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. He gained interest from RPM after driving in four races for the team while Aric Almirola was injured. Wallace said Aug. 4 that he’s focused on finding a ride for next year with so few options left for this year.

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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.”

Motorcraft/Quick Lane returning to Wood Brothers Racing in 2018 for 18th season

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Wood Brothers Racing announced its sponsor partner of 17 years will return to back the No. 21 Ford in 2018.

Motorcraft and Quick Lane Tire and Auto Centers will sponsor the No. 21 Ford driven by Paul Menard for 14 races. Menard’s will sponsor the No. 21 for 22 races.

Ford Customer Service Division, the parent organization for Motorcraft and Quick Lane Tire and Auto Centers, has been partnered with Wood Brothers Racing since in 2001.

Menard was announced as the successor to Ryan Blaney in the No. 21 last month. Blaney is transitioning to Team Penske’s No. 12 Ford full-time next season.

Blaney earned his first Cup win this year at Pocono to qualify for the playoffs.

Menard will be departing Richard Childress Racing at the end of this season after being with the team since 2011. That year he won the Brickyard 400, which remains his only Cup victory in 387 starts.

“We are very excited about the future of our association with Wood Brothers Racing with Paul Menard behind the wheel of the iconic No. 21,” Brett Wheatley, the North America executive director of Ford Customer Service Division, said in a press release. “The announcement today solidifies the full-time status of Wood Brothers Racing going forward, and we couldn’t be happier to be a part of that.”

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Ryan Blaney paces final Cup practice at Bristol

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Ryan Blaney posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway with a lap of 128.554 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Larson (128.065 mph), Ryan Newman (127.784), Jamie McMurray (127.487) and Kyle Busch (127.258).

Chris Buescher, who will remain with JTG Daugherty after this season, was next on the speed chart with a lap of 127.098 mph.

Matt Kenseth had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 125.930. Busch was next at 125.601 mph.

Click here for practice report

In the session’s only incident, Timmy Hill spun but did not hit the wall.

Qualifying is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN.