Len Wood

Paul Menard to retire from NASCAR; Matt DiBenedetto will drive No. 21 in 2020

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Wood Brothers Racing announced Tuesday that Paul Menard will retire from full-time NASCAR competition after 2019 and Matt DiBenedetto will take over the historic No. 21 Ford next season.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will retire after 13 full-time seasons in the Cup Series. The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be his 471st start.

This year was his second season driving for Wood Brothers Racing. Menard, 39, joins David Ragan in being the second long-term veteran to announce their retirement from full-time racing after this season.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment of my career racing in the NASCAR Cup Series and I’m so thankful for all the great memories and friendships I’ve made through this sport,” Menard said in a press release. “But I’m looking forward to spending more time at home with my wife Jennifer and our two young children while moving forward with the next chapter of my life.

“I want to thank everyone at Wood Brothers Racing, along with Team Penske, and our partners at Menards, Motorcraft, Quick Lane Tire & Auto Centers and Ford. It’s been a privilege to work with them and some of the true legends of our sport, including Andy Petree, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Robert Yates, Richard Petty, Richard Childress, Roger Penske and Glen and Leonard Wood. I’m excited for what the future holds and I’m looking forward to sharing the plans for 2020 and beyond in the coming weeks.”

Said DiBenedetto in a statement: “I am so excited about this opportunity to race for one of the most successful teams in NASCAR history beginning in 2020. The No. 21 Ford is one of the most accomplished and iconic cars in our sport and it will be an honor to join Wood Brothers Racing and help carry on the team’s tradition of success in NASCAR. I want to thank Eddie and Len Wood, Kim Wood Hall, Menards, Edsel Ford and Ford Motor Company for this opportunity.”

The news about DiBenedetto’s new ride comes after he was informed by Leavine Family Racing last month he wouldn’t return to the No. 95 Toyota next season.

DiBenedetto, 28, is in his fifth season of Cup competition. Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was his 166th start. He has six top-10 finishes, including three top fives this season. All of those have come in the last 11 races. One of his top fives was a runner-up finish in the Bristol night race, where he led a race-high 93 laps but lost to Denny Hamlin.

DiBenedetto will be a guest on NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.

“We want to thank Paul Menard for his dedication to the team over the last two seasons,” said team President and co-owner Eddie Wood in a statement. “We’re looking forward to a strong finish to 2019 and we wish him nothing but the best for the future. All of us at Wood Brothers Racing are excited to welcome Matt DiBenedetto to the team beginning next season. Matt has shown a lot of promise on track and everyone has seen it in his results this season, especially over the past several months. We want to continue to build on that success together as we gear up for 2020 and the future of Wood Brothers Racing.”

Later in a press conference, Menard said he expected Menards to remain as a full sponsor on the No. 21 and Ryan Blaney‘s No. 12 car.

Why Sunday’s Southern 500 means so much to Wood Brothers Racing

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For all the success Wood Brothers Racing has enjoyed in NASCAR, including five Daytona 500 victories and triumphs elsewhere, the family run team would enjoy perhaps its greatest win in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

The reasons are many:

* It would be the 100th career Cup win for the team, which began racing in NASCAR in 1950, making Wood Brothers Racing the longest-active team in the sport.

* It would be the organization’s ninth victory at Darlington.

* But perhaps most importantly, and as part of Darlington’s annual throwback weekend, driver Paul Menard will be piloting the No. 21 Ford with a retro paint scheme that will honor team founder and NASCAR Hall of Famer Glen Wood, who passed away in January at the age of 93.

The scheme Menard’s car will carry will reflect the same look that graced Glen Wood’s Ford in the one and only time he raced as a driver at Darlington in 1957.

“It just seemed fitting,” Glen’s oldest son and team co-owner Eddie Wood told NBC Sports. “We were looking for a car to honor him and it just seemed like the right one. It was an important time for him and that makes it important for us to be able to run that paint scheme. It was one of dad’s favorite cars.”

But it isn’t just the car and the paint scheme. It’s also the track Too Tough To Tame.

“We’ve had a lot of success at Darlington and it’s just one of those special places,” Eddie Wood said. “Len and I went to the old Yankee Stadium before they tore it down, as well as Wrigley Field. Going to Darlington, to me, is kind of like going to those old ballparks. Darlington was NASCAR’s first big race track, first superspeedway. You go back through history and how many cars that started that first race (75 cars in 1950).

“The history around Darlington is just fascinating to me and to do a throwback weekend with cars and paint schemes every year is a brilliant, brilliant idea. It’s the right place for it. It’s almost like a reunion for everybody, a family reunion of racers, whether you raced in the 50s or 60s or raced last week. Everybody just seems to be invited.

Eddie’s brother and team co-owner Len Wood agreed.

“Darlington as well as Daytona and Charlotte, those are the big races that we kind of grew up around, the Daytona 500, the World 600 and the Southern 500. That was the ultimate,” Len Wood said. “Fortunately with David Pearson, we won all three of those in 1976. To us, they’re very important races.

“To honor our dad, it was very special to us (to have the retro scheme). With Daddy passing away, it just all came together to do a paint scheme for him.”

Eddie Wood grew emotional when asked if the passing of his father eight months ago is getting easier with each track the team goes back to, given how most of those played such a vital role in the Wood Brothers’ racing legacy.

“It really doesn’t get any easier, but I’m sure that’s the way it is for everybody,” Eddie Wood said. “You go along and you run into something like this and then the emotions come back. But they’re good emotions. You’re honoring him and everybody is noticing and feeling everybody is honoring him and that makes you feel good.”

It will also be the first time Wood Brothers Racing has raced at Darlington since David Pearson, who won a track-record 10 times there, passed away Nov. 12, 2018.

Len Wood admits he’ll also likely grow emotional when Menard brings the No. 21 to the green flag to start Sunday’s race.

“When that comes by, it’s going to put a lump in my throat,” he said.

The only thing that could make this weekend even more special is if Menard can take the No. 21 to victory lane.

“Darlington has done a really nice job the past few years with their throwback theme for the Southern 500,” Menard said in a statement. “As the driver for perhaps the most iconic and longest running NASCAR team of all time, I’m completely honored to represent the man that started it all, Mr. Glen Wood, with our Wood Brothers Racing #21 scheme for this year.”

Added Eddie Wood, “If Paul were to win this weekend, boy, that would be over the top. Winning the race would be the 100th win for us and that’s a huge milestone for us if and when we can get there. If it happened at Darlington, there couldn’t be a better place.”

“Winning at Darlington would be quite special,” Len Wood said. “I just know Daddy would be looking down on us and would be very proud of us if we did.”

NOTE: NBCSN will debut a documentary on Wood Brothers Racing at 6 p.m. ET on Friday (and again at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, just before that evening’s main event race). The documentary traces the family’s history in racing, including its start, how it revolutionized pit stops, winning the Indianapolis 500 and multiple Daytona 500s, competing with David Pearson and beyond.

“Sixty-nine years,” Leonard Wood, younger brother of Glen Wood and also a NASCAR Hall of Famer, says in the documentary. “That’s a long time being racing. You know going in you might not win. Don’t say poor me. Take it in stride and go for the next one.”

Added Len Wood, “I think everybody will be pleased with the documentary. It kind of shows a different side of (the company’s legacy) than what most people have seen. I hope it goes over well.”

 

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Wood Brothers’ lifeline started with a phone call: ‘I’m going to fix that’

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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.’’

SURVIVORS

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.

Ryan Blaney. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

LOYALTY

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.

Leonard Wood and Glen Wood pose with their car at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 22, 2012. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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.’’

FAMILY

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.

Eddie and Len Wood at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 23, 2016. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“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.

VICTORY

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.

Trevor Bayne celebrates after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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.

NIRVANA

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.’’

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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.”

Long: A celebration worth savoring for Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers

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Ryan Blaney wasn’t supposed to be here.

Neither were the Wood Brothers.

Yet, there they were celebrating Sunday at Pocono Raceway after a momentous win for a storied organization and a storied family.

The Wood Brothers trace their history to NASCAR’s early days when the only Petty racing was Lee (Richard’s dad) and the fastest siblings were the Flocks. The Woods later dominated with David Pearson driving the No. 21 Ford.

“Our dad and uncles back in the ’60s and ’70s, they were almost unbeatable and built those wins up,’’ co-owner Len Wood said.

The Woods’ success faded. There were special moments, such as Dale Jarrett’s first Cup win in 1991, Morgan Shepherd’s last win in 1993 and Elliott Sadler’s first Cup victory in 2001, but there were struggles between those special days.

The family’s darkest period was from 2008-10. The team failed to qualify for the 2008 Daytona 500, marking the first time since 1962 the “Great American Race” was held without the Woods.

They missed four of the first five races in 2008. The family business teetered.

It seemed as if Wood Brothers Racing would follow the fate of so many mom-and-pop businesses that were gobbled up by bigger competitors. Just these competitors weren’t Wal-Mart but Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

After Petty Enterprises closed its shop at the end of 2008, the question became if the Wood Brothers would do the same.

With Ford’s support, the team survived, running select races. It wasn’t even half a season but it kept the family business alive.

“You just take it one day at a time and one situation at a time and one crisis at a time,’’ co-owner Eddie Wood said of the struggles. “There’s always something going on or changing in racing, and you just have to adapt and figure out a way to make it work. 

“You have a day like today, you don’t even remember the tough times.’’

The team provided a feel-good moment in 2011 when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 but the Woods hadn’t won since. It seemed only a matter of time, though, with the team’s affiliation with Team Penske and 23-year-old driver Ryan Blaney.

While some might recall Blaney as the son of driver Dave Blaney, Ryan Blaney is actually a third-generation racer. His late grandfather, Lou, raced as early as 1958 and amassed more than 600 wins, driving sprint cars and modifieds.

Dave Blaney was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2014, joining Lou, who was inducted in 2013. Dave Blaney didn’t enjoy the success in NASCAR he did in sprint cars, winning one Xfintiy race, but the family’s racing gene was passed on to Ryan.

It was on a trip to watch his dad race in NASCAR when Ryan’s career began. He raced a quarter midget at age 8, making his debut at a dirt track not far from Pocono Raceway.

As Ryan Blaney’s success grew, he moved through the ranks and began gaining attention of Cup drivers.

In a 2012 marketing video, Tony Stewart said of Blaney: “I won’t try to sell him to anybody because I want him eventually. I want him in our organization. I think the world of him. I think he’s going to be the next great star.’’

Also providing a testimonial was Kevin Harvick, the driver Blaney held off in the final laps to win Sunday.

In that 5-year-old video, Harvick said: “Ryan just understands how this sport works. He understands how he’s supposed to be off the race track. In the race car, he’s just a great competitor and understands what he’s supposed to do. It’s very rare that you see somebody that far ahead of their time.’’

The youngster held off the 2014 Cup champion Sunday by not making any mistakes. Harvick never got to the rear bumper of Blaney’s car to make a move.

With that, Blaney became the 18th different driver to win for the Wood Brothers.

Blaney joined the family in 2015 and their time together was expected to be short.

“It was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen,’’ Eddie Wood said.

Instead, Blaney is with the Wood Brothers, merging future with past.

In a serendipitous nod to when the Wood Brothers were among the dominant teams, Blaney’s radio malfunctioned and his crew couldn’t hear him. They had to resort to the hand signals used back when David Pearson drove the No. 21 for them. Hand to the roof meant the car was loose, hand on the door meant the car was tight.

Still, if only the radio had worked. Blaney wanted to go back in time in a special way.

“I wanted to pick Eddie and Len up,’’ Blaney said. “I wanted to find them and pick them up.’’

And drive them to Victory Lane. Just as they used to do back when the Wood Brothers won so often.

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