By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
AVONDALE, Ariz – Coming off a sixth place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and momentum in his corner, Ryan Blaney isn’t looking like a rookie, but rather a driver on the rise, a driver on the cusp of breaking through for his first win in the Sprint Cup Series.
With the Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway set to get underway Sunday, it’s important to know how this season began.
The 2016 season began with refreshing news that Wood Brothers Racing, one of NASCAR’s most well respected and legendary organizations, would return to a full time schedule in the Sprint Cup Series after nearly a decade spent running on a limited basis.
The last two seasons Blaney, 22, ran selective races with the Wood Brothers. Always fast in qualifying, the second-generation racer put together standout performances at Talladega (fourth) and Kansas (seventh) in 2015.
So it only seemed fitting that when Wood Brothers Racing decided to go back full time racing, that Blaney was the driver they put behind the wheel of the famed No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lube Ford.
The move didn’t come overnight though.
A culmination of Ford and huge support from sponsors to go along with an alliance with Team Penske, the opportunity to return full time with a young, fast driver made it all possible. The opportunity to learn from Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski has also allowed both the Wood Brothers and Blaney to lean a top-flight team as they grow together.
Fast out of the gate in Daytona, it wasn’t until last week that they got the finish they deserved at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think it’s been a good start to our year,” Blaney told Tribute Racing. “You know we’ve had a couple good races and one not so great, that didn’t end well. I think the team is working very well together and they’re really getting trustworthy of each other. (Crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and myself, I think we’re just getting stronger each race, communication wise. I think it’s going really well.
“It’s been a lot of fun for the first three races here.”
Having found success and won in NASCAR’s undercard tours, being the sole driver chosen by the Wood Brothers in their full time return isn’t something that is lost on Blaney.
“It’s just cool to be at the race track every single weekend with the Wood Brothers and seeing them around is really, really cool. So, it’s been an honor to be back full-time with them and that’s a big product of Ford, they helped put us back full-time and they’re a big supporter of us, as well as Motorcraft and Quick Lane.
“They stepped up a lot to be able to make this happen and we can’t thank them enough for that.”
In the middle of an intense Rookie of the Year battle, Blaney is poised to looking at the bigger picture such as wins, and how much it would mean for him to get his first career Sprint Cup Series win while at the same time returning the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane.
“That would be kind of the perfect combination right there,” Blaney said. “That’d be so cool to get them back to Victory Lane and to get my first (Sprint Cup) win with them. That would be a dream come true.
“To do that with such a cool team and knowing the history there, that would be a storybook deal right there.”
Image: Jerry Markland/Getty Images