On a sunny afternoon at the Talladega Superspeedway, the magic came back.
The GEICO 500 played out just like many a race back in the day, as old-time fan favorites rose to the occasion and wowed the crowd in a grandstand far more full than in recent races at the venerable track.
One of Talladega’s more recent fan favorites, Dale Earnhardt Jr., found his way back to Talladega’s Victory Lane for the first time in 11 years, finally winning again at the track his late father dominated during his era.
But for many, the driver who stole the show was young Ryan Blaney, who gave the Motorcraft/Quick Lane No. 21 Ford Fusion a ride reminiscent of the days when his Wood Brothers team dominated races at the 2.66-mile oval.
Blaney, racing in Cup for just the sixth time ever, started a Cup-career-best third, ran among the leaders for the entire race and finished a career-best fourth. TV broadcasters focused much of their attention on the red-and-white Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, and Blaney did not disappoint them, contending for the win all the way until the final lap.
For long time fans of NASCAR racing and of the Wood Brothers, it was a performance that reminded many of David Pearson, who dominated races at Talladega and everywhere else in the Woods’ cars back in the 1970s.
Blaney was cool under pressure, and in the closing laps as he followed Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, he was shuffled back when fourth-running Denny Hamlin, running just behind him, pulled out and left him fading back in the pack.
Unfazed, Blaney worked his way back toward the front to finish fourth.
Eddie Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, said the 21-year-old Blaney was much cooler under pressure than he was watching from the team’s pit box.
“I think he drove a fantastic race,” Wood said. “He stayed calm, never got excited or frustrated.”
“On the other hand, I’d be going to pieces and he’d come on the radio and be as calm as could be.”
Wood said that’s not the first time he’s been in that scenario.
“It was just like talking to Pearson in the old days,” Wood said, adding that just like back in the day, it took the efforts of a lot of people to have success on the race track. “Our crew chief Jeremy Bullins and the crew did a fantastic job, and Team Penske built us a great race car.”
Blaney, like Pearson back in the day, tends to let his race car do most of his talking for him, but he did acknowledge in his post-race media session that he thinks he earned some respect from his peers during the race.
“Luckily, about three-quarters of the way through the race we made a couple strong moves and guys went with us, and I think that helped put us in position later in the race for guys sticking with us,” he said. “The yellow [rookie] stripes back there don’t help out at all, but hopefully this helps us out for the next Daytona.”
For Wood, having the young Blaney behind the wheel of the iconic No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion has energized not only him but the entire organization.
“I feel like I did back when I was Ryan’s age,” he said. “It feels just like going to the race track back in the old days when we knew we had a shot to run well every time.”
“I’ve been that way all season. It’s a great feeling.”
Wood Brothers Racing PR