Rookie Ryan Blaney is movin’ on up – and not just in NASCAR’s points standings.
Blaney, who will start 12th in Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, has landed in a more desirable neighborhood in the already exclusive NASCAR Sprint Cup garage. After a season’s first three races, a driver’s spot in the standings – Blaney and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford are 14th – dictates which stall a team receives in the garage.
So there Blaney is, with Kasey Kahne on one side and Aric Almirola on the other and stars like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin not too far away.
“It is nice,” Blaney said. “All of last year we were like one of the very last garage stalls and obviously you want to be up in the garage order. It is kind of cool to be on the other side of the garage for once.”
Blaney’s start to his rookie season – he had a season-best sixth-place finish last week at Las Vegas – comes with a Wood Brothers team that is racing full-time for the first time since 2007. Wood Brothers Racing is NASCAR’s longest-running teams (formed in 1950) and among its most respected. Drivers of the iconic No. 21 have included Donnie Allison, David Pearson and Neil Bonnett.
But the Woods’ decision to go part-time in 2007 cost them. When NASCAR moved to a team “charter” system this season, it only included 36 teams teams that had run in every race over the three previous seasons.
That left the Woods and Blaney as an “open” team, one that wasn’t guaranteed a spot in every 40-car race or part of the charter system’s payouts from NASCAR.
But after qualifying on speed at the season-opening Daytona 500, the Wood Brothers have been one of just three open teams at Atlanta, Las Vegas and this week at Phoenix. That’s meant they’ve been guaranteed a spot in the field, just like a charter team.
“That is good,” Blaney said. “You obviously wish to have more cars but it is a strong field, that’s for sure – a very strong field. In our position, having to qualify in, you never know what can happen in qualifying. We could go out and I could wreck going to the green and if there were 41 cars we would be going home.
“There is really not an issue in my mind of hoping that we can qualify in on speed. Even if there was, I know that we have great race cars. I guess it just doesn’t really bother me because I know we have great race cars.”
Blaney was heartened by his performance at Las Vegas and is ready to take the next step.
“The main goal is to win,” said Blaney, 22. “We are not really here to points race. I want to win races. That is every team’s goal and we are so early in the season I don’t even look at points. I don’t care about that. I care about running like we did at Las Vegas. If you consistently run top-10, then you are very close to trying to get a win. I don’t want to say it is out of the question.”
The Wood Brothers have an alliance with Team Penske, NASCAR’s top Ford team that includes stars Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
“We’ve raced together; we’ve raced against each other,” Team Penske owner Roger Penske said recently. “To have an opportunity to partner with them is pretty special. They’ve set the standard. You look at their cars. You look at their pit crews and execution and the championships they’ve won, so to me, it’s a perfect partnership with them. We know them. We trust them. They’re high-integrity people.”
Blaney and the Woods have also raced their way into a more desirable spot in the garage, nearer also to the stalls of Logano and Keselowski.
“Hopefully we can keep moving up and get closer to the (Nos.) 2 and 22 guys,” Blaney said. “It would be nice to get next to them.”