For the first time since the 2007 season, the Wood Brothers are slated to run the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2016. The man behind the wheel, 22-year-old rookie Ryan Blaney, is competing in his first full Sprint Cup Series campaign.
In any sport, the rookie season is always the toughest. Trying to fit in with teammates, adapting to new people and performing well, each of these variables can create a stressful and possibly mediocre first year. Blaney has the intangibles to make it a different story.
The last name Blaney is well known in the dirt racing realm. From his father Dave, to Uncle Dale, the youngest member of the family has been put in the best situation of all, competing in the Cup Series with a legendary team such as the Wood Brothers.
The Wood Brothers have won races spanning over the last six decades, the first coming in 1960 when Speedy Thompson crossed the checkered flag first at Charlotte. The crew chief on that team was Leonard Wood, who can still be seen at the shop 56 years later.
Out of all five Sprint Cup rookies, Blaney has the most experience in this style of car. Over the last two years he has competed in 18 races with a best finish of fourth at Talladega last May. In those two seasons of part-time competition, the No. 21 car has had multiple part failures that have caused them to finish near the rear of the field, including four engine failures in 2015 alone.
One thing that Blaney has going for him in the rookie class is friends, better yet, rivals. He has raced approximately five years with driver of the No. 24 car, Chase Elliott. The two young talents have competed in 27 races against each other in the XFINITY Series, both winning three races over that time period.
When it comes to Blaney’s rookie competition, the North Carolina native doesn’t know what to expect. Being that he is a rookie, it is hard to set a standard on what could be a successful season.
“It’s kind of hard to set expectations and goals for your rookie season going full-time,” Blaney told Speedway Digest. “I think a good goal to set is try to run all the laps. It’s a tough goal to do, but doing that is how you get the most experience, and that’s how you really learn as a driver.”
The other three members of the rookie class include NASCAR XFINITY Series veteran Brian Scott who is getting his first real opportunity in the Cup Series with Richard Petty Motorsports. 2015 XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher will be taking over the No. 34 car for Front Row Motorsports and Jeffery Earnhardt will run the majority of the races, except for the restrictor plate tracks for Go Green Racing.
The two front runners for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award are Blaney and Elliott. It could be a toss-up on who comes out on top between those two teams, mainly since they are aligned with quality organizations.
“I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side,” Elliott said. “But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”
The Wood Brothers now have an alliance with Team Penske. Over Blaney’s four-year run in NASCAR, he has become friends with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck that he ran in the Camping World Truck Series.
Team Penske is coming off one of its best seasons as an organization in team history. Combined, Logano and Keselowski led over 2,500 laps, earned seven victories, 31 top fives and 53 top-10 finishes with an average finish just over 10.1. The team has Blaney in its wing and looks to rub some of the speed over to the Wood Brothers.
“I think it’s a great rookie class,” Blaney said. “I think it’s the best class we’ve seen in a while. Chase Elliott is going to be really tough. He does a great job. He has a great team behind him and an already established team that has been working together for a long time. I think he will be very tough, but it will be something really fun to watch.”
In being as young as Blaney is, but having plenty of experience under his belt in NASCAR, it is possible that the No. 21 car ends up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There will be multiple bumps in the road as the rookie will have to get used to the grind of the 36-race season.
If he can get through the first couple of months under the radar and in contention to make the Chase based on points it will make the Wood Brothers more mainstream. There is reason to think that the team will be successful because of the alliance with Team Penske. They will be receiving cars, equipment and members from the Penske organization.
It would be something else to see the Wood Brothers clinch a Chase spot for the first time in its history. The historic company has done everything else in NASCAR except compete for the championship under the Chase format.
Could Blaney pull off an upset victory in the Daytona 500, similar to what Trevor Bayne did in 2011 with the same team? If so he would clinch that ticket as long as he can stay in the top-30 in points.
To go along with a full Cup schedule, Blaney is scheduled to run in multiple XFINITY Series races for Team Penske. Over the past four seasons, he has recorded four victories, 21 top fives and 33 top 10-finishes in 43 career starts, leading 706 laps.
Said Blaney: “I’m sure we will figure that out here in about a month. It’s usually last minute before we figure all that stuff out, but I’m sure we will get it squared away soon.”
There is a new generation that is taking over quality rides in the Cup Series. Like always, there is pressure to succeed. However, this rookie battle has the potential to go down to Homestead before crowning a definitive champion.
It started out as an abysmal season for one of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. However, Chris Buescher has learned from mistakes made early in the season, and now he is inside of the top-10 in Nationwide Series points.
Buescher, 21, is racing for Roush-Fenway Racing this year, but there is an open seat available in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. His teammate, Trevor Bayne, has been racing full-time on the Nationwide Series circuit for RFR while running part-time at NASCAR’s highest level for the Wood Brothers for the past several seasons. Now, Bayne is taking his Advocare sponsorship to the Sprint Cup Series with RFR in the No. 6 Ford – leaving an open seat available with the Wood Brothers.
Rumors have been swirling around the NASCAR garage area that although Sam Hornish Jr. is the leading candidate for the ride, Buescher also has a strong chance to drive the famous No. 21 car.
“There have been no discussions as far as that goes,” Buescher said. “They are still focusing on the rest of this season and getting Trevor some more good runs in for the rest of the year.”
However, even though he has not started to talk to the Wood Brothers, Buescher has not completely closed the door on the possibility of racing for them in 2015.
“I’m sure we’ll start talking to them about where they are headed next year, but there is not a whole lot to talk about at the moment.”
Even if he races with the Wood Brothers next year on a part-time basis, Buescher will continue to pilot a car for Roush on a full-time basis in the Nationwide Series – similar to the process which the team had to develop Stenhouse.
Since 2011, the No. 21 car has not been on the track at more than 16 events in a single season. Besides their Daytona 500 victory, Bayne and the Wood Brothers have seen limited success with just two top-10s after that race (both of which came in 2012). However, the team has a strong relationship with RFR, whom of which influenced the team to sign Bayne to replace Bill Elliott after the 2010 season.
“Trevor is very helpful with us every weekend, but it is not like he’s going to be far away. He’s going to be right next door in the Cup Series garage. Any help we can get from him is always appreciated as well as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It is tough going to some of these places for the first time,” Buescher said on what his perspective would be after Bayne leaves RFR.
Buescher missed the season-opener at Daytona when qualifying rained out after the first session. Since then, he has six straight finishes of 13th or better. The 2012 ARCA Series champion is looking to record his second top-five finish of his rookie season as he sits eighth in the Nationwide Series points standings.
“We’ve been coming on pretty strong here lately. Our Roush-Fenway Racing cars are getting better as we go through the season. We ran really well at Michigan. We’re definitely making progress and I’m looking forward to where we are headed,” he said.
The famous No. 21 Ford has a vacancy for the 2015 season. Trevor Bayne, who has driven for the Wood Brothers since Texas in 2010, is set to move over to Roush-Fenway Racing on a full-time basis next year as Roush will bring back the No. 6 car which was driven by Mark Martin for nearly two decades.
However, the Wood Brothers have plenty of options to fill their coveted seat, in part due to their alliance with RFR. This year, Bayne has recorded three top-20s in the No. 21 car, each of which has come at intermediate tracks. But this team has not raced full-time since they attempted to do so in 2008, but missed a handful of events with Jon Wood and Marcos Ambrose.
Now that the team is looking for a new driver, they might just go back to racing on a full-time basis. The Wood Brothers have not run more than 17 races per year since Bayne joined the team, even after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. They just have not been able to piece together more sponsorship packages to run additional events.
Rumors have been swirling around that Sam Hornish Jr., the former Indianapolis 500 winner, might be able to piece together some funding to run full-time with the Wood Brothers next year. But history shows that the Wood Brothers are by far less successful when they run their No. 21 car on a full-time basis. Just look at what they did in the 1970s – winning over 50 races while racing on a part-time basis each season. And since Morgan Shepherd won a race for the team in 1993, the Wood Brothers have won a mere two races (not including Michael Waltrip’s All-Star Race victory).
Hornish is currently racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, and he has already won a race this season. But like Hornish has said in the past, he won’t race in the Cup Series if he doesn’t have a chance to win races week-in and week-out. That might take him out of the picture since the team has yet to score a top-10 finish at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since Las Vegas of 2012.
With Roush’s heavy alliance with the organization, they might encourage the Wood Brothers to stay racing on a part-time basis with one of RFR’s developmental drivers.
Currently, Roush has Chris Buescher and Ryan Reed racing in the Nationwide Series. Reed is struggling more than initially thought, partially because he has finished on the lead lap just three times this year. Although he has showed signs of improving, Reed is not going to be ready to tackle the Sprint Cup Series for at least another season.
That leaves Buescher, the younger cousin of former Camping World Truck Series champion, James Buescher. After missing the season-opener at Daytona because the entire Roush camp struggled to create a strategy to lay down respectable laps, Buescher has raced his way into the top-10 in points. Buescher would make a good candidate for the No. 21 seat as he has had similar results to that of Bayne’s when he started his Nationwide Series career.
Even though Buescher stated that he is going to run at least one more season before running full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, he did admit that he would like to get at least some experience in NASCAR’s top-tier division before tackling it for the entire season.
Ryan Blaney will also be a candidate to race the No. 21 car next year. Even though the Wood Brothers don’t work with Team Penske too much, they are both Ford teams. Blaney made his Cup Series debut at Kansas, and ran inside the top-20 until having to make a late race pit stop. It appears as if he will move up to the Nationwide Series on a full-time basis next year, and racing with the Wood Brothers would save Team Penske the trouble of having to field a third Cup Series team for Blaney – enabling them to possibly run Juan Pablo Montoya in some additional events.
Then there are some other drivers who might be able to seal the deal with the Wood Brothers. Here are some of the possible candidates:
-Elliott Sadler: Sadler drove for the Wood Brothers to start his career, but was not extremely successful with the exception of his fuel mileage win at Bristol in 2001. Currently, he drives for JGR as a title contender in the Nationwide Series, and he might be able to bring over his sponsorship to the Wood Brothers to run full-time with a Cup Series team.
-Regan Smith: Smith has a strong relationship with Chevrolet, so it is unlikely he will go to the Wood Brothers. However, if they offer him a full-time deal, he might just take it after racing in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports since last year.
-Josh Wise: Wise has shown in the past that he is capable of running well if given the equipment. He clearly outran Danica Patrick in the No. 7 Chevrolet in multiple Nationwide Series races in the past, but he has been stuck racing for underfunded teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. A part-time move to the Wood Brothers would help build Wise’s brand, especially if he can take all of his Reddit.com followers with him.
-Parker Kligerman: Kligerman is still searching for a ride in basically anything that has a motor and four tires. The former Kyle Busch Motorsports driver has notably been looking in the Verizon IndyCar Series for a ride, but he has yet to seal a deal. Racing for the Wood Brothers would enable him to run at the intermediate tracks, his strong suit, and he would be able to get the exposure of racing in the Cup Series which