Ryan Blaney helping resurrect Wood Brothers Racing ahead of Martinsville

North Carolina native has turned one of NASCARs most storied team into a contender again in second full-time season

Jonathan Ferrey—Getty Images via NASCAR Media
Ryan Blaney goes through technical inspection during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24

Three years ago, Ryan Blaney and Wood Brothers Racing packed up the No. 21 car in Chicagoland and headed back home to Stuart, Virginia. It marked the third time in eight races over an 11-week span rain canceled qualifying and sent the team home prematurely.Blaney, who was 21 at the time, was simply trying to cut his teeth at the top level of NASCAR with a team on the brink of being passed over by the sport it helped build. Without funding for a full-time ride and no points accrued to guarantee a spot in the field, that was the reality for the team in 2015.”That was a tough season for us all the way around,” Blaney said. “We didn’t have any points, ran a partial schedule and got rained out in qualifying and we had to pack up and go home. That was crushing because it wasn’t our doing. We were super fast, but didn’t have the funding.”That all changed the following season.Team Penske announced an alliance with Wood Brothers Racing that would put him in the No. 21 car full time prior to 2016. Blaney finished runner-up for Rookie of the Year while piling up nine top-10 and three top-five results, narrowly missing the playoffs without a win.The momentum has carried into 2017, with Blaney currently sitting at seventh in points with three top 10s and a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. Eddie Wood, the team’s co-owner and son of co-founder Glen Wood, doesn’t take that amount of rapid growth for granted.”It’s been surreal for us,” Eddie said. “You look back on it and you’re not really sure how you got to this point. [Laughs] We were in survival mode for several years and it worked fine. Ford and Penske were the reason we’re still here. Ryan has helped elevate us to the level we’re at now.”Every race he runs, he just gets better and better. He’s a 23-year-old kid, but he’s got the savvy and the know-how of a driver who’s been around for years. That’s hard to find.”Blaney’s rise to NASCAR stardom has been rapid, but he’s far from the only young driver finding success. Along with Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, Blaney is one of three drivers under 25 in the top seven in points heading into this weekend’s Martinsville race.Larson and Elliott are ranked first and second, respectively, with Larson already clinching a spot with a win in Fontana. After years of only Joey Logano holding up the young drivers’ banner, Blaney believes there is a changing of the guard in NASCAR.”At this point, we’re trying to keep up with [Kyle] Larson and Chase [Elliott], which is completely different from past seasons,” Blaney said. “So yeah, I do think you’re seeing a little changing of the tide a little bit. Chase and I have a full-time season under our belts. Larson and Austin [Dillon] have been in it a few years. Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones are already great drivers as rookies.”There’s definitely a large group of us who are on great teams and starting to figure out how to run up front. It’s a pretty cool little battle between veterans and young guys. It’s only going to get harder to hold us back.”Growing up in High Point, Blaney watched his father, Dave, race every Sunday all the way up until his final full-time season in 2013. Dave Blaney bounced around with 11 different total teams during his career, collecting just one win at the Xfinity Series level.Charlotte may be the lone North Carolina track on the schedule, but a large part of Ryan’s first memories of racing stem from Martinsville.”Martinsville’s basically like a home track for me,” Blaney said. “Living in High Point, Martinsville was closer to me than Charlotte. I always remember as a kid watching my dad race there and my dream was to be like him. … Martinsville reminds me of dreaming of what I’m doing right now.”It’s very special to me to do that.”It’s not just a big deal for Blaney, though. The Wood Brothers have competed in NASCAR since 1953 after making their premier at Martinsville. As much as Martinsville may be an adopted hometown track for Blaney, it’s 25 miles away from the team’s shop in Stuart.Leonard Wood has been attending races in Martinsville for 70 years since the track was built. After not having a car racing a full-time schedule in 2015, Leonard enters race weekend in Martinsville with a renewed vigor and a driver with a chance to get to Victory Lane.”It’s been a great experience coming here close to home,” Leonard said. “We always wanted to win here more than anywhere because it’s the home town. So we’re looking forward to coming here and watching Ryan win this next race.”