NASCAR PLAYOFFS: WOOD BROTHERS, BLANEY READY TO DO SOME CHASING

Eddie and Len Wood are finally invited to the postseason party.

Since NASCAR went to its playoff format for its premier Cup Series in 2004, the iconic Wood Brothers Racing team that began fielding cars out of its Stuart-based shop 64 years ago has been on the outside looking in when it came to the postseason chase.

Not this time, though.

Led by fast-blossoming leadfoot Ryan Blaney, the Wood boys find themselves gearing up for Sunday’s first leg of the 2017 Cup Series playoffs that begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway.

“This will be the first time. We’ve been looking forward to this since our Pocono win back in June,” Len Wood said via a Ford teleconference Monday.

His older brother, Eddie, is pumped up , too.

“Just the sheer excitement of being a part of that is something that’s new to us,” he said.

“We [won] an owners’ championship, my dad [Glen] and uncle [Leonard] did back in 1963. So this is very special for us because this is the first time we’ve been involved in the new format.”

It also will be the first playoff appearance for the 23-year-old Blaney, whose victory June 11 at Pocono marked his first Cup win and the team’s 99th overall.

“Ryan is a special talent,” Eddie Wood said. “His driving is special. He’s only 23 years old but he has the maturity in the race car of a veteran who has raced for a number of years. I think that’s one of his special qualities, he seems to be able to adapt to different things. He gets up to speed very quickly everywhere we go.

“Last year, when we started [running] the full schedule, there were a lot of places he had never seen. And by the time we got ready to qualify he already was up to speed. That takes a special guy and I think you’re going to see a lot out of Blaney in the future for a long, long time.”

Well, the Woods had better take advantage of the hot driver now. In an expected move that was announced July 27, Blaney will move full time into the No. 12 Ford of Penske Racing next year. Crew chief Jeremy Bullins is heading with Blaney to the Penske operation that includes star drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Of course, it’s the technical alliance with Penske that aided the operation of the Woods with chassis and technical support the past two seasons. It was a move that was key in the Woods’ team returning to the full Cup schedule in 2016. That help, combined with Blaney’s talent, enabled the team to become a factor week-in and week-out at races.

“We’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big,” said Blaney, whose seat will be filled next year by Paul Menard.

“That’s on my bucket list for this year … and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

Blaney will enter the 10-race playoffs 45 points behind regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. — among the 16 drivers who qualified for the postseason.

Certainly, the team will enter the playoffs as a huge longshot to capture the championship in a season that’s been dominated by Truex and Kyle Larson, who was second in points during the regular season.

One factor that could play in the No. 21 team’s favor is that five of the 10 playoff races will be run on 1.5-mile tracks.

“I feel good about all of them,” Eddie Wood said. “The mile-and-halves certainly are better for us right now, but we’ve run well everywhere we’ve been.

“[Blaney] catches on quick. I wouldn’t put him at a disadvantage by just not having a lot of starts.”

The savvy Bullins has been doing a ton of homework entering the playoff push. He likes his underdog team’s chances of making a serious postseason run. Plus, the No. 21 team got to test at Chicagoland.

“Having the opportunity to test at the first track was good in a lot of ways,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity to work on our setup for there. So, hopefully, all that will parlay into some performance as we kick this thing off.

“The first round you can kind of point your way through … the second round with Charlotte and Talladega and Kansas, I feel like we can win any of those.

“The next round is Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. At Martinsville, we had top-five speed in the first race and had some issues there. At Texas, where I felt like we were a contender for the win. And Phoenix is a place that we’ve gotten a lot stronger at, too.”

“So I certainly feel like it’s out there for us to do our jobs and get all the way to Miami-Homestead [for the Nov. 19 playoff finale].”

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