Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers found each other at the perfect time. Blaney, the young talent, had been with Penske Racing (technically still is) but a lack of an open full-time ride Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Ride from Roger Penske brought him to the Wood Brothers until a potential ride opened up. The Wood Brothers, the old-school team who has been around since the beginning of NASCAR, had been struggling as a small team and only raced a partial season in order to maximize their opportunities when they raced.
Blaney and the Wood Brothers teamed up in 2015 and only competed in 16 races. But the one top five and two top ten finishes, along with Blaney’s potential to be a top racer prompted the Wood Brothers to roll the dice and get back to racing a full season for the first time since 2006.
The finishes got better. Last season, Blaney finished 20th in points, had three top fives and nine top tens in 36 races. This season, Blaney pulled off a second-place finish in the Daytona 500, won the Wood Brothers’ first pole position since 2004 and their second since 1984. And this past weekend, after suffering broken axles in two consecutive races, everything finally came full circle and Blaney won his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono and the Wood Brothers’ first since getting an upset win with Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500.
With their 99th career win, the Wood Brothers are inching ever closer to win #100. Some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history have won with the Wood Brothers. A who’s who of racing legends like Marvin Panch, Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt, Curtis Turner, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett have won races with the Wood Brothers, not to mention working as the pit crew for Jim Clark’s Indy 500 winning run in 1965.
Since their first win in 1960, the Wood Brothers are one of two teams to have won a MENCS race in six consecutive decades. Now, Blaney is on pace to enter the playoffs and if he were to win the championship this year, the 23-year-old would forge his own history among the Wood Brothers by winning the single car team their first ever NASCAR championship.
Ryan Blaney spoke with The Comeback about his first win, racing for the Wood Brothers, being a pit reporter for FOX’s Drivers Only broadcast and got the Star Wars fan to share his thoughts on The Last Jedi.
— Darrell Wallace Jr (@BubbaWallace) June 12, 2017
We did it!! Such a great privilege to driver for the Wood Brothers. Good times with good friends is all I can ask for. Let's go for win 100! pic.twitter.com/3joF2o2uAe
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) June 12, 2017
Phillip Bupp: After the win, it seemed like everyone in NASCAR was partying with you after the race. How long did the party last and how did you feel in the morning?
Ryan Blaney: Yeah, it was pretty neat to have most of my Wood Brothers guys out there so that was nice to have them all come out and celebrate that with them. And then have some friends come over along the way who I’ve either grew up with or raced against now, that was pretty special. But I didn’t get home until about midnight, I got home pretty late. We probably didn’t stop until 4 or 5 [am] so I didn’t make it quite as far as I wanted to but it was still a lot of fun. It was just nice to get everybody out there to have a good time and celebrate but always look forward to the next week, next weekend and go try to do it again.
— Phillip Bupp (@phillipbupp) June 12, 2017
PB: I was in your pit for the final 20 or so laps and it was definitely tense in there, how were you feeling in the car?
Blaney: You try not to be tense at all in the race car. Just try to do your job and try not to make a mistake and really just do what you’ve been doing all day and hit your marks. Just try to make lap times and not let whoever’s behind you to get a run on you. So that was the worst thing, just trying not to mess up and make a mistake because I figure if we didn’t do that, we had a good shot at it and luckily we had a good enough car to stay up front and had enough speed to be able to hold [Harvick] off at the end.
PB: Which was more nerve-wracking, passing Kyle Busch and holding off Kevin Harvick for the win or being a pit reporter for the Xfinity race?
Blaney: (Laughter) The first little bit of being a pit reporter was pretty nerve-wracking. I was kind of nervous the first time we went on TV just because you want to make sure your information is all right. You don’t want to say any wrong information and make yourself look bad but once we got going on that, I actually had a really good time and it came a lot easier than what I thought it was going to.
Once you start listening to everybody and taking down notes and so that part was pretty neat. Something different I’ve never done before. But I definitely say the last little run of that race on Sunday was definitely a lot more nerve-wracking, just a lot more on the line. But they were both pretty stressful.
PB: Your win was one of the most popular in a while [along with Austin Dillon’s first win]. I have to think you and the Wood Brothers may be the only people in NASCAR who everyone likes. There’s probably a few people who don’t even like Dale Earnhardt Jr. for some reason. Whether they like you or like the Wood Brothers or both, everyone seems to feel like if their favorite driver can’t win, they want you guys to win. Do you ever want to get to the point like, for example, Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch where some fans boo you for winning too much?
Blaney: No, it’s pretty neat to have a bunch of folks who enjoy seeing the Wood Brothers win races and run up front. Winning with a team like that, it’s hard for them to not have fans and people to dislike them. It’s been neat to see the fan reaction ever since we won that race. It was definitely a feel good moment for a team who’s been around for a long time like them to get back to Victory Lane and get one step closer to their 100th win. That’s pretty special and it’s cool to see everybody react to that in a good way. But I don’t know, some of those guys get booed for winning too much, but you know.
PB: It’s not a bad problem to have.
Blaney: That’s not a bad problem to have I think. But I’ve been lucky to have some great fans over the years and keep building the fanbase. It’s been a lot of fun.
PB: Speaking of the Wood Brothers, you put yourself in a highly esteemed company through their history. You’re the seventh driver to win your first race and 21st driver to win a race with them. The history of NASCAR is intertwined with the Wood Brothers as they, along with Richard Petty Motorsports, really are the last of the old-school throwback teams from the days in the start of NASCAR. It even got to the point where you had to use hand signals to tell the team how the car was driving during the race because they couldn’t hear you. What’s it like to already be associated with some of the greats who have won with the Wood Brothers, in the #21 at such a young age?
Blaney: It’s just really special to get those guys back to victory lane where they deserve to be. I feel like they have it the hardest out of anybody in the garage and they deserve to be running up front and competing for wins. I feel like we had a couple chances to win earlier this year. Just everything didn’t come together for us and we didn’t get the finishes we quite deserve, but it’s nice where everything comes together and you can perform to the high expectations that the team is given and just have an old team like that.
Like I said before, win a race for a team that has been around for 67 years now, that’s pretty amazing that they’re still competitive in this day and age and just like they were back in the day. Especially with me, I grew up watching the Wood Brothers and I appreciate everything they did and still do. It’s very nice to be part of that group, but yeah it’s nice to kind of share that with the Petty team and the #43 car [Darrell Wallace Jr’s first MENCS race], that part’s pretty special.
PB: And I imagine everyone with the team is really gearing to try and get the 100th win.
Blaney: Oh yeah, that’s the goal, that’s the big milestone for any race team. That’s a huge accomplishment, so we hopefully can get that this year. We’re going to try our best to keep doing what we’ve been doing and bring fast cars to the racetrack. That makes it a lot easier when you do that and I don’t think we really changed our outlook from what we have been this year.
PB: Switching gears, I wanted to ask a few questions about you being a pit reporter in FOX’s Drivers Only broadcast last Saturday. You mentioned about how the start of the race was a bit nervous. Was that your biggest difficulty as a pit reporter?
Blaney: Yeah, I mean, we never have to worry about five to 10 other cars and worry about what their cars are handling like, what they’re going to change and that’s something that a pit reporter has to do. We’re always just worrying about our car and trying to make our car faster. So that was the most different and difficult part of it was just trying to figure out, talk to crew chiefs or teams or PR reps of that driver or team and they can kind of give you some notes or scanning that driver [over the radio] to kind of write down some notes of what they’re struggling with or what they’re going to do with tires or strategy.
You know, Pocono is always a big strategy racetrack so whether it’s staying out or pitting early, that is something you have to stay on top of to try to say on TV. So that part was pretty fun actually once we got going. It was really difficult at first but once we got at it and did it a couple times, it kind of became a little bit easier. It was still pretty tough. The original FOX pit reporters, I had Chris Neville with me, he helped me out a ton throughout the race giving me pointers, giving me notes and scanning other cars as well.
PB: Would you like to do something like broadcasting in the future either as another one-off or many years down the road after you’re done driving?
Blaney: I don’t know. I wouldn’t mind doing it a few times a year. Nowadays, whether it’s the pit reporting thing again or being up in the booth and calling a Truck race or Xfinity race, I think that’s kind of cool. So that’s something I’d be interested in. But down the road, I don’t really know. I don’t know where my outlook is going to be on things that far down the road if the opportunity presents itself. But we’ll have to figure that out in maybe 20 or 30 years or so.
PB: What grade would you give yourself on how you did?
Blaney: I’d probably say a B+. I wasn’t quite an A. I don’t feel like there was some things I could’ve done better, but I don’t think I was terrible either so I think a B+ is a fairly reasonable grade.
Life's made. pic.twitter.com/0kTE8Ax4ol
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) March 22, 2017
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) May 26, 2017
PB: Final question, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this. You’re a huge Star Wars fan. You recently met Daisy Ridley and probably reacted in a way most Star Wars fans would if they met her. Also, FOX posted a video of you describing each film in the series on a road trip. What are you most looking forward to in The Last Jedi?
Blaney: Good question, now we’re getting into the real stuff (laughter). I don’t know, man. I’m looking forward, there’s a lot of unknown questions after The Force Awakens that I think is going to be answered. Just as far as backstory stuff and like “What happened.” They left a lot of that stuff up in the air, so I’m excited to see where it goes. Excited to see some identities of some characters and where they come from.
So I don’t know, I think they’re going to build on that a lot and like I said, there was a lot of stuff they kind of left out for everybody to speculate on from Episode VII. So we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited for, I’m excited for the wintertime. The Last Jedi comes out in December and Star Wars Battlefront II comes out in November, so the whole offseason for us is pretty exciting. I’m pretty pumped up for that.