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.”