Perhaps lost in the expected Martin Truex Jr. versus Kyle Larson championship narrative are the results put together by the Wood Brothers this season.
For the first time since 1994, the iconic No. 21 is back in championship contention with Ryan Blaney behind the wheel. Certainly, the Woods’ affiliation with Team Penske is the reason why they are here, but there’s something refreshing about the Wood Brothers chasing a NASCAR championship.
They’ve done it using the young Penske development driver and crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Together, the pairing won at Pocono and posted three top-fives and nine top-10s. They need to be slightly better than their current 18.8 average finish, but now the playoffs have provided a clean slate.
But again, regardless of how it plays out, it’s cool to see the 21 in a playoff for the first time in NASCAR history. And despite having won an owners’ championship back in 1963 with Glen and Leonard Wood at the helm, the team is still looking for its first drivers’ championship.
Current car owners Eddie and Len Wood understand the magnitude of the moment.
“This is a first for Len and I and our team,” Eddie said during a teleconference on Monday. “We did win an owners’ championship, our dad and uncles did in 1963, but it’s been a long, long time. 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.
“You’ve got three races to do well in to advance to the next round, and that puts a lot of pressure on everyone, but I think we’re ready for it.”
The last time the Wood Brothers were remotely close to this situation was back in the early 1990s when Morgan Shepherd took the No. 21 to back-to-back NASCAR Cup Series top-10 championship finishes. Shepherd was as high as fourth in the summer of ’93 and fifth in the summer of ’94.
This year, Blaney enters the three-round, 10-race playoff format ninth in the standings with eight bonus points accumulated thus far. However, it provides little margin for error should something go wrong at Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover this month.
“The first round is the one I’m honestly most worried about,” Blaney said on Saturday night 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.”
Specifically, Blaney finished 19th at New Hampshire in July. At Dover in June, an axle on the No. 21 Ford broke and they finished 33 laps down. That’s something his team cannot repeat.
Bullins feels like the cars are as prepared as they could be entering the stretch run.
“Chicago is a place I feel like we can go and easily be a top-five car, if not contend to win the race,” Bullins said. “Our intermediate program is strong, and Loudon and Dover are two places where I feel we can run top 10 all day long. We’ve been able to do that and just need to put races together at those two places, but the first round you can kind of point your way through.
“The second round with Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas, I feel like we can win any of those. I feel like those are all very good racetracks for us. The next round is Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. Martinsville, we had top-five speed in the first race and had some issues there. Texas, I felt like we were a contender for the win, and Phoenix is a place we’ve gotten a lot stronger at, so I certainly feel like it’s out there for us to do our jobs and try to get all the way to Homestead.”
Thus, Bullins disagrees with the underdog mantle.
“I’d say a lot of people look at us as a long shot, but I think some of the tracks really suit us well,” he says.
These races should suit Blaney, Bullins and the Woods just fine because the No. 21 is essentially the de facto third Team Penske entry. The cars are stored inside the Team Penske shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. And with Joey Logano failing to qualifying for the playoffs, that makes Wood Brothers Racing Penske’s second-best bullet alongside Brad Keselowski.
“It’s been a really good thing for us to be aligned with Team Penske,” Len Wood said. “It’s almost like we were one of Roger’s cars. We use quite a few people from Penske. We obviously use their research and development, the engineering. It’s made it much easier for Eddie and I because you don’t really have to worry about whether the car runs or not because it’s there every week.”
This is also the end of a three-year swan song for Blaney and Bullins driving for the Wood Brothers. Both will move over to Penske full time with the new No. 12 entry. So to win one for the Wood Brothers would be special on several levels.
Blaney is also hoping to win the 100th Cup victory for the storied team. Doing so in the playoffs would be the icing on the cake.
“Ryan is a special talent,” Eddie Wood said. “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, 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.”