By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It was difficult to tell who was more excited on Wednesday when the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour wheeled into the Ford Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina.
Take your pick: There were the legendary Wood Brothers, returning to full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Ford Racing, unveiling its new version of the No. 21 Fusion, and driver Ryan Blaney, preparing to continue his own family’s racing tradition by running a full rookie season in the NSCS.
It’s big news and well-received in NASCAR that the Wood Brothers are back racing a full, 36-race schedule for the first time since 2008. With 66 years of racing history, the team has won races in seven decades, fielding multiple winning cars for the likes of Marvin Panch, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Neil Bonnet.
“I’d like to think that we could be (back) in Victory Circle reasonably soon – maybe the Daytona 500,” said co-owner Len Wood, whose team won that race with rookie driver Trevor Bayne in 2011. “That’s one of our favorite races. But I’m looking forward to going back to some of the tracks we haven’t been to for a while, like Atlanta, Martinsville.”
Co-owner Eddie Wood agrees that there’s simply a different feel with the team prepared to be at the track every week, as it was in the days when Glen (now 90) and Leonard Wood (81) were in charge. “You’re just not supposed to be at home when everybody else is racing,” he said.
Like the Woods, Blaney grew up in the racing business. He’s the son of long-time driver Dave Blaney.
“My dad was my hero and (racing) is what I wanted to do,” said Blaney, his string bean 5-7, 140-pound frame backed to the nose of a sparkling new, red and white Ford Fusion – a version sporting a smaller windshield, retooled deck area, and new fender flares among visible changes based on similarities to production cars.
“All I knew was the race track – nothing else. I didn’t care about any other sport or school as much. I was just a fan of racing and that was what I wanted to do at a young age. That’s why I’m so lucky to be in this position. It’s just sort of a dream come true. We’re just lucky to go full-time racing with a great organization and great equipment.”
Despite having 18 Sprint Cup starts under his belt (including a fourth at Talladega last year), Blaney is just 22. It won’t hurt that he’ll be surrounded by a world of experience, not only by the Wood Brothers, but with crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who recently won 21 races and consecutive owner’s championships in the XFINITY Series with Team Penske.
That experience, Blaney maintains, is breeding neither a generation gap nor pressure that might normally accompany a driver looking to secure a seat for the long haul.
“They (Wood Brothers) are the most laid-back group of people I’ve known and Jeremey Bullins is the same,” Blaney said. “They’re very accepting people. They’re racers and all they care about is wanting to go race. They don’t mind who is in the race car, if he or she is 18 or 50.”
Bullins, recovering from right ankle surgery in December, is actually coming home. He began his career with Wood Brothers in 1999.
“It means a lot to me to get this thing with Wood Brothers back full-time and it means a lot to me to try to have the opportunity to try to make it competitive,” he said. “Growing up where I did, it was all (about) the 21 car.”
Bullins says that Blaney, despite his tender age, has the maturity to do the job. His 43 NASCAR XFINITY Series starts (four wins, 33 top 10s) and 58 races (four wins, 40 top 10s) in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series bear that out.
“I think the cool thing about growing up the way he did and who his dad is, he’s not overwhelmed about being in the garage,” Bullins said. “Because he’s been here and seen it all and knows what the expectations are, he’s 22 but doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t walk around like it.”
Outsiders might be quick to judge Blaney’s season by how he fares in the battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
“Chase Elliott has a great team behind him, stepping in for Jeff Gordon. It’s going to be a lot of fun to race with him and Chris Buescher and Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt all year,” Blaney said.
But Bullins says he’ll be judging things differently.
“I think you’re judged every week by the 43 cars you go up against. It will be a good rookie class … but our goal is not to beat one guy. It’s to beat all of them. As long as we’re improving every week, I’m satisfied.”
Blaney says he’ll be focused on that steady improvement and gaining a measure of respect.
“That’s what it’s all about, whatever level you’re in,” Blaney said. “You have to earn the respect of your competitors. I did that in the Truck series and XFINITY Series. My dad always told me you have to give respect to get it back and I’ve worked very hard to give as much respect as I could without just pulling out of the way of other people.”
Image: Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images