MOORESVILLE, N.C. — It used to be a thing.
When NASCAR rookies in bygone days graduated to their sophomore seasons, you came to expect the canned photos: A smiling driver at the rear of the car, clearing the bumper of the yellow tape that’s required of first-year talent.
Ryan Blaney — as best as we can tell — took no such staged photo, cheesing for the camera in mid-tape peel. Still, there’s been a noticeable change in the 23-year-old driver this season, his second in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and it’s helped stir the early indications of a rejuvenation for Wood Brothers Racing, one of the sport’s most storied teams.
“I think when he pulled that rookie stripe off the car,” said team co-owner Len Wood, “it’s like last year he was, ‘I’m going to mind my P’s and Q’s, I’m going to pay attention and I’m going to be respectful of everybody, try to gain respect.’ This year, I think he’s stepped up his aggressiveness a little bit. I think that’s the main difference. So far, I haven’t seen recklessness with it, just aggressiveness.”
Blaney’s 2017 pivot may not have been the result of an overtly communicated directive from team to driver as much as a natural reflex for a relative newcomer growing more comfortable in his surroundings in stock-car racing’s major leagues.
Whatever the reason for the figurative loosening of the reins, the new vibe has clicked. Blaney sits sixth in the drivers’ standings, fresh from a standout performance at Texas Motor Speedway two weekends ago. Blaney faded to a 12th-place finish but charged hard to lead 148 laps in the early going, marking the iconic No. 21 team’s first race with triple digits in the laps led column since the fall of 1982.
“I feel like that was a main goal, not only for myself but for our whole team, to be more aggressive this year whether it’s racing or pit calls,” Blaney says. “I think it’s definitely easier to make those decisions when you’re not a rookie and you try to gain respect that whole first year so that you can run them a little harder. That side had definitely amplified a lot and it’s benefited us so far.”
Stages of support
For an organization rich with tradition, owing to a family pedigree of 67 years of involvement with auto racing, the Wood Brothers have demonstrated a knack at adapting to modern-day NASCAR’s rules of the road. In particular, Len Wood says, the No. 21 Ford team has found opportunity in the incentive-based three-stage race format introduced this season.
In seven races so far this year, there have been 14 intermissions. The Wood Brothers have accumulated points in 11 of those, earning bonuses for running in the top 10. That stretch has included finishing in the points in nine of the last 10 stage breaks, and two convincing stage wins during Blaney’s rapid-paced run at Texas.
Many factors powered the Lone Star stage sweep, not the least of which was strategy. A late-breaking caution flag during the second stage put No. 21 crew chief Jeremy Bullins on the spot. Bullins ultimately made the call for Blaney to stay on the track to maintain position in the running order, bettering his chance for more stage points.
After collecting the green-checkered flag for Stage 2, Blaney fell back after a scheduled pit stop during the intermission, a jammed-up restart and a late pit-road gaffe that thwarted his comeback efforts. It would have been too easy to blame the late-stage decision for the team’s fade, but Len Wood pointed out that a similar strategy panned out for Jimmie Johnson, who eventually stormed to his first victory of the season.
If Bullins caught any undue scrutiny for the call, he didn’t carry any regrets into last weekend’s holiday break.
“Obviously you’re trying to win races, but through the first part of the season here, everybody’s seen what a big deal the stage points are,” Bullins said. “We felt like we could win that stage, and how do you give up 10 points? At the end of the day, we got a lot of points out of it, and did we get the win? No, but it was a good confidence boost for the team and certainly a decision we would make again in a heartbeat. I don’t second-guess it at all, and I think it was the right thing to do.
“I think the fact that we were able to win those stages shows how much our team has grown, and Ryan’s confidence in where our team is at this year.”
The Wood Brothers made the jump back to full-time competition in NASCAR’s premier series last season, a transition aided by a strong technical affiliation with Team Penske, one of Ford’s flagship teams with drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. That relationship has grown since Aug. 14, 2014, when the Wood Brothers announced both the advent of the alliance and the addition of Blaney as the team’s driver, fresh from the Penske development system.
And though it’s hard to say that Ford’s commitment to the Wood Brothers — a fiercely loyal relationship spanning seven decades — has grown even stronger this year, the manufacturer has bolstered its efforts in both performance and sheer numbers by bringing Stewart-Haas Racing to the blue-oval side in 2017.
“I think it shows the support that they’re wanting to put into the sport in general, which is great,” Bullins said. “I think when you add a quality team like that, there’s more resources coming from both sides, right? I think it helps everybody.”
A prime asset helping to revitalize the Wood Brothers this season is a more measured Blaney. His patience in a wreck-filled season opener led to a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500; driving slightly less defensively in the races that followed helped to continue the upward trend.
But Blaney also adds off-track intangibles that have helped keep the shop’s mood light. It’s a team with plenty of tradition and old-school cred, but with a young driver known for his avid Star Wars fandom and his Snapchat antics — late-night death metal crooning anyone? — with partner-in-crime Bubba Wallace.
“He’s kind of a different kid,” Len Wood says. “He’s a kid off the track. Him and Bubba when they went last year and filmed each other acting like different drivers, that stuff was pretty funny. But I think when he puts the helmet on and sits down in that race car, I think the kid part’s gone and he’s turning into a very good driver.”
One without those pesky rookie stripes.