Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers Racing team promise to enter this season on footing that feels much more stable than the ground they stood upon ahead of last year’s season opener. It remains a stretch, however, to think that the combination will allow the team to make significant headway in an otherwise stacked front half of NASCAR’s top level.
A year ago, Blaney, 23, was staring at the prospect of his first full-time season being much more of a challenge than originally expected. NASCAR’s Charter system made its debut mere weeks before the Daytona 500, guaranteeing starting positions for 36 teams that had competed full time in the Premier Series for the previous three years. The Wood Brothers team, despite being the longest active operation in NASCAR, didn’t make that cut and therefore joined the ranks of “open” teams. The key difference? Open teams had to qualify on speed each week, while each Charter team had a guaranteed spot in every race.
The move was an ominous early shot at the No. 21 team’s plan to run a full season for the first time since 2008. But Blaney and the Wood Brothers handled the new challenge with aplomb. They qualified for each race, and Blaney posted top-15 finishes in half of his starts.
“Ryan now has a full year under his belt,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said at the end of last season. “He’s run all the tracks, and (2017) will be a lot better for him. In our first year back we were able to get Ryan in the top 20 in the final points standings. That’s a significant accomplishment, and I feel certain we can improve on that next year.”
Blaney, the son of former Cup driver Dave Blaney, did find himself in potential winning situations more than once last season. The closest shot came at Chicagoland Speedway in September, when crew chief Jeremy Bullins left Blaney on the track during a late pit sequence. He restarted that race from the lead on old tires with two laps left and held on for a fourth-place finish.
“We were able to get the lead at Chicago and it was looking like we had a chance to win that race,” Blaney said in an end-of-season team highlight video. “It just didn’t work out for us, unfortunately. I think that showed the strength of our team, and I feel like it was a definitely good learning point moving forward.”
Weeks later, Blaney hung near the front in the late stages of the 500-miler at Talladega Superspeedway as he helped Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in the draft. Blaney finished 11th while Logano won. The single-car Wood Brothers team has a tight relationship with Penske and receives chassis and engines from the multi-team operation.
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A key aspect of Blaney’s season — one that routinely showed flashes of better things to come — was that Penske support. Going forward, that relationship will continue to pressure Blaney (technically a Penske developmental driver) to improve on the track. Areas for Blaney to focus on this season: avoid continued slumps (he had a nine-race stretch last summer without a top-10 finish) and make fewer mistakes that result in finishes off of the lead lap.
At least Blaney won’t have to worry about qualifying. December shuffling of Charters left the Woods with one leased from another Ford team, Go FAS Racing.
One more year of development should put Blaney close to making his first postseason. Whether he will get there is a 50/50 proposition.