Perhaps it’s fitting Ryan Blaney turned 21 on Dec. 31, as he will make his first real voyage into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series aboard the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21.
Yes, Blaney has a handful of Cup starts, but an increased 18-race schedule with the Wood Brothers will mark his first time running so many races in NASCAR’s top series.
Blaney has been around cars since birth, thanks to his father Dave and uncle Dale’s racing careers. The Woods, from Glen and Leonard Wood and on down the line, are celebrating their 65-year anniversary this year.
This pretty much makes the two racing families a perfect match.
“You’re not a fan or a racer of NASCAR and don’t know the Wood Brothers,” Blaney said during the NASCAR media tour. “I didn’t need to research. I know them. Names like Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bill Elliott, Tiny Lund… they’re all really iconic in NASCAR. Most guys have driven for the Woods.
“When you drive for an iconic team, it’s amazing. For the family lineage in racing, it meshes. Their family is a long line of racers. It’s neat how that twists together. It gives us a great relationship. They’re a great group of guys, and we want to be successful for them.”
Success will be a hard term to define for Blaney and the Wood Brothers this year, although he’ll come with crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who has spearheaded some of Team Penske’s recent success in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
With Blaney only running an 18-race schedule, there’s no points to worry about, which should allow for both driver and crew chief to be more aggressive more often than not.
But as Blaney admitted, he’s a Cup rookie, even though he won’t be running for rookie-of-the-year honors. He’ll need to earn that respect at the Cup level.
“There’s actually a fine line there,” he explained. “So OK, the benefit of a partial schedule is you don’t have to worry about points so you can be more aggressive on pit calls or driving style. But you’re new, and have to earn respect.
“I’d compare it to being a high school senior then going to college and being a freshman. You’re new, and you’re moving from being a big bad senior to nothing! That’s kinda me right now. I was good in the Truck Series… now you’re nothing in Cup. It’s a balancing act between being on the aggressive side since you have to learn, but you have to give a lot to gain respect.”
Bullins, who’s come a long way over 15 years since starting as a car chief and engineer with the Wood Brothers in 1999, said the increased Cup schedule will help serve both of them better in the long run.
“Adding to the schedule is better; it gets us in a better rhythm as a team,” Bullins said. “Now it’s about how fast we get there. The goal for him is to be a full-time Cup driver, and my goal is to be a full-time Cup crew chief.”
Blaney was effusive in his praise of Bullins, who has worked with several drivers at Penske and helped steer the No. 22 team to the last two owner’s championships.
“I think we had four different drivers in ’13 and ’14,” Blaney said. “That speaks to his character and commitment to racing. Not all drivers drive the same. For him to adjust and know what they like, and be successful at it, is amazing. He adjusts so well, and we’re fortunate we got him for this Cup program.
“We’ve created a good bond. We’re both building our careers at the same time. Drivers talk about a personal language you have with your crew chief; we have that, and it’s beneficial.”
With the Wood Brothers at 98 career Cup wins, two more will take them to 100. The goal for the Daytona 500 – assuming the team qualifies for the race – is to emulate Trevor Bayne’s 2011 upset victory, the team’s most recent win.
“We’re gonna try to make that happen!” Blaney said. “We’re expecting we’ll have a very fast car for the 500 and this year overall. They’ve worked really hard on our speedway car for the 500.
“Hopefully we can do it… this car, that race, the history… hopefully we can pull a ‘Trevor Bayne moment.'”