The oldest team in NASCAR has seen a return to form through youth. The 22-year old Ryan Blaney has not only proven himself one of the most notable figures of NASCAR’s future, but has brought Wood Brothers Racing back to the forefront of the sport. The son of former NASCAR driver Dave Blaney, Ryan rose through the ranks of NASCAR’s lower tier series over the past few years. With future stars like Chase Elliott among the current rookie class, Blaney has turned heads with his performance and currently sits on the Chase bubble. Not only are NASCAR fans witnessing the rise of a star, but with it, the return of a legend.
The Rise of Ryan Blaney Spells the Return of Wood Brothers Racing
Blaney’s performance in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series showed that he had great potential for the top Sprint Cup Series. In that time, however, he largely raced for Team Penske. Penske currently is among NASCAR’s top teams. With 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and constant championship contender Joey Logano, Penske cars are always near the front of the pack. A seat with Penske could have spelled instant success for Blaney. Instead, Blaney broke into the Cup Series with Wood Brothers Racing in the iconic 21 Ford through a partnership with Penske. This move meant that Elliott would not be the only son of a former driver inheriting an iconic NASCAR seat. Blaney currently sits second behind Elliott in NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year standings.
Wood Brothers’ Struggles
Founded in 1950, Wood Brothers Racing is NASCAR’s longest running team. This longtime presence and relative visual consistency has made the 21 Ford among the most famous vehicles in motorsports. With this has come a long string of legendary names behind the wheel: Cale Yarborough, Dale Jarrett, David Pearson, and Donnie Allison to name a few. This legendary presence has seen the team reach nearly 100 victories in NASCAR’s top series. In 2001 began a slump for the team, in which they would not reach victory lane again until 2011. This time period saw the Wood Brothers reduced to a part time schedule. As single-car teams became passé in NASCAR, the Wood Brothers fell behind.
The 2011 Daytona 500 was a breakthrough for the team as well as a Cinderella story for the sport. Trevor Bayne, at age 20, became the youngest driver to win the storied race. Although things were looking up for the team, the 2011 Daytona 500 turned out to be an isolated flash of success. Bayne remained on a part-time schedule with the team for another three seasons before moving to Roush Fenway Racing. Despite the longevity and icon-status of the team, the Wood Brothers were left out of NASCAR’s 36-team charter system. This meant that they were not guaranteed a position on the starting grid, and must qualify for each and every race they enter.
Ryan Blaney has Revitalized Wood Brothers Racing
With 2016 brought the news that the Wood Brothers would be returning to NASCAR’s top series full-time. This meant the first full Cup season for Ryan Blaney. This first season back in full-time contention, even without a guaranteed spot, has been met with unexpected success. Blaney has managed six top 10 and one top 5 finish across 18 starts. This performance has put Blaney 18th in Cup points, just outside of a position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This return to form has left NASCAR with a predicament regarding the charter and the Wood Brothers’ eligibility to race each week. NASCAR faced this by allowing non-charter teams to start in each Chase race if they make the playoff system. So the system that left the Wood Brothers on the outside looking in has been altered due to their success.
Both the young driver and the old team are keen to make an impact on the 2016 NASCAR Cup season. Blaney has expressed a disinterest in qualifying for the Chase on points. Blaney wants to win his way into the Chase: “I don’t really pay too much attention to points. We go out and try to win every single race. That’s the mindset we have. The rest of it will figure itself out. We’re focused on wins. We’re not going to be conservative“. Such a mindset is a throwback to the classic days of stock car racing. The days where the 21 Wood Brothers car peaked in success. This approach from the young Ryan Blaney is showing what this team is capable of, and how hard they are willing to push.
For a team so synonymous with the past, it is hard to tell what the future holds. This is not the first time a young driver has come around and sparked the old team. Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win will be seen as an iconic moment in NASCAR for years to come. However, Bayne’s successes were inconsistent. Ryan Blaney brings simultaneously a fierceness and balance to the team. He is willing and able to push the single-car team as far as it can go, without sacrificing performance. The fact that he is so close to a Chase position serves as proof. While Chase Elliott may take the rookie of the year position, that is with Hendrick Motorsports. Arguably, Blaney can be said to be the driver who has impressed the most.
There is no reason to doubt the bright future of Ryan Blaney. From what he has proven with the Wood Brothers, he would make any top team very happy. With strong ties to Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, he is certainly top-ride caliber. However, this pairing with the Wood Brothers has brought something back to the sport. The Wood Brothers, alongside Furniture Row Racing, have shown that single-car teams can still compete. They have proven that the history of the sport is still relevant in its newest iteration.
The legendary red and white Ford with the gold number 21 will forever be listed as the vessel of racing icons. Icons named Yarborough, Jarrett, Pearson, Allison, and Blaney.