A WOOD BROTHERS FIRST: STUART TEAM RETURNS HOME AS CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENDER

“The first thing I’ll do when I get there Saturday morning is get me a couple of hot dogs,” Wood said with a laugh by phone earlier this week.

While Wood and the rest of the Wood Brothers have been to dozens and dozens of races at their hometown track, there’s no denying that Sunday’s First Data 500 will mean a bit more than some others before it.

 Wood Brothers Racing, a team that originated and still has a museum and headquarters in Stuart, has never raced at Martinsville Speedway while still alive in the NASCAR playoffs.

Wood Brothers driver Ryan Blaney claimed a spot in the Cup Series Round of 8 after finishing third at Kansas Speedway last week. Blaney has become something of a comeback kid this postseason. After sneaking into the playoffs by virtue of picking up his first career win at Pocono Raceway on July 11, Blaney went into the postseason in ninth place. A poor start at Charlotte three weeks ago, despite an eighth place finish, dropped the No. 21 car back to 11th in the standings and in danger of missing the cut.

But Blaney found a way in the final two races of the round, winning Stage 2 at Talladega and finishing third last week at Kansas to gain enough points to move up to seventh. The top five finish was even more improbable given that Blaney had to start at the back of the pack in Kansas after issues arose in post-qualifying tech.

“Ryan has a really good knack for doing all the right things when it’s needed,” Wood said. “You don’t really think about it when you’re in the middle of it… you just race like you’ve always raced and you can’t really try to change things up because it may result in a change that affects you somewhere that you hadn’t thought about or something like that. It’s kind of like dancing with the person you brought to the party. You just stick with what works.”

While Wood said he’s treating Martinsville this weekend like any other race on the schedule, he does acknowledge this weekend will be special. The Wood Brothers will be having a fan appreciation day at their museum in Stuart Friday afternoon from 2-8 p.m. Blaney will make an appearance at the event that night.

The team will have fun on Friday, but once Saturday and Sunday roll around, it’ll be back to playoff mode as they look for their first NASCAR Championship.

“You’ve got to treat it the same,” Wood said. “You’ve got to treat the race the same as you always do. But just the fact that you’re in the playoffs, going there to race is one thing. Going there to race and having a shot at being in the last round at Homestead, that’s very special. It’s special going to Martinsville anyways because it’s so close to where we live and we always look forward to it.

“Our car with Blaney and everything, Jeremy (Bullins) being the crew chief and all the things that are involved in it, we’ve had fast cars most all year so it’s kind of rewarding just to get into the playoffs and to get into the second round of it… Ryan stepped up to the challenge and everybody on the team did also and it was just very rewarding.”

A new challenge

This week will present another challenge for Blaney and the Wood Brothers. In three races at Martinsville his highest finish is 19th twice, and his best start is seventh. Blaney came to a two-day open test at The Paperclip earlier this month, and Wood said he believes the extra time in the car will pay off this weekend.

While Wood said obviously the next goal is to make it to the final four, he said no matter what happens, if the season were to end today he would consider it obviously very successful.

Given the fact that the team picked up win No. 99, which also served as No. 1 for Blaney’s career, there’s not much more they could ask for other than a championship.

“You’d have to look back and say ‘man, we ran well almost every week. We won a race,’” Wood said. “We hadn’t won a race in a few years and it was Ryan’s first win and that’s always special to have a driver win his first race in your car. We’ve been fortunate enough to have that happen a couple times and that’s a special moment that will never change. That’ll be a bond that we will always have with Blaney. The same with Trevor Bayne, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty. That first race win is always a bond that never gets tarnished or broken or anything like that.”

For now, Wood is looking at Martinsville, not just because it’s his and the rest of the teams’ home track, but because it’s the next track up, and they’re still in a playoff chase with one goal in mind. His plan is to make sure they don’t take anything for granted these next three weeks before the next cut is made. Wood pointed to what happened to Kyle Larson last week in Kansas as an example of what could happen.

Larson, in one of the fastest cars all season, looked to be all but assured a spot in the top 8 when an engine failure cut his day short, and his season shorter.

“You hope that doesn’t happen to you,” Wood said. “But getting caught up in a crash or having a part failure or something is always in the back of your mind but you do everything you can to prevent that and you just have to let it play out and then you adjust as things happen to you during the race. You just have to run the race like you normally would.”

On Saturday morning, Wood will get his Martinsville hot dog just like he always does, he’ll chat with Speedway President Clay Campbell, and he’ll give himself some to reminisce about being back at his home track.

But come Sunday, there’s a playoff race to be run.

“I’ve been going down there since I was a little kid. You know it’s changed a lot but it really hasn’t. It’s still Martinsville to me,” he said. “It just makes it special to come to Martinsville and still be in the playoffs because there’s only eight of us left. And then there’ll be four. And then there’ll be one.”

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