Legacy, family stands out for Ryan Blaney with the Wood Brothers

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Perhaps it’s fitting Ryan Blaney turned 21 on Dec. 31, as he will make his first real voyage into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series aboard the Wood Brothers’ iconic No. 21.

Yes, Blaney has a handful of Cup starts, but an increased 18-race schedule with the Wood Brothers will mark his first time running so many races in NASCAR’s top series.

Blaney has been around cars since birth, thanks to his father Dave and uncle Dale’s racing careers. The Woods, from Glen and Leonard Wood and on down the line, are celebrating their 65-year anniversary this year.

This pretty much makes the two racing families a perfect match.

“You’re not a fan or a racer of NASCAR and don’t know the Wood Brothers,” Blaney said during the NASCAR media tour. “I didn’t need to research. I know them. Names like Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bill Elliott, Tiny Lund… they’re all really iconic in NASCAR. Most guys have driven for the Woods.

“When you drive for an iconic team, it’s amazing. For the family lineage in racing, it meshes. Their family is a long line of racers. It’s neat how that twists together. It gives us a great relationship. They’re a great group of guys, and we want to be successful for them.”

Success will be a hard term to define for Blaney and the Wood Brothers this year, although he’ll come with crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who has spearheaded some of Team Penske’s recent success in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

With Blaney only running an 18-race schedule, there’s no points to worry about, which should allow for both driver and crew chief to be more aggressive more often than not.

But as Blaney admitted, he’s a Cup rookie, even though he won’t be running for rookie-of-the-year honors. He’ll need to earn that respect at the Cup level.

“There’s actually a fine line there,” he explained. “So OK, the benefit of a partial schedule is you don’t have to worry about points so you can be more aggressive on pit calls or driving style. But you’re new, and have to earn respect.

“I’d compare it to being a high school senior then going to college and being a freshman. You’re new, and you’re moving from being a big bad senior to nothing! That’s kinda me right now. I was good in the Truck Series… now you’re nothing in Cup. It’s a balancing act between being on the aggressive side since you have to learn, but you have to give a lot to gain respect.”

Bullins, who’s come a long way over 15 years since starting as a car chief and engineer with the Wood Brothers in 1999, said the increased Cup schedule will help serve both of them better in the long run.

“Adding to the schedule is better; it gets us in a better rhythm as a team,” Bullins said. “Now it’s about how fast we get there. The goal for him is to be a full-time Cup driver, and my goal is to be a full-time Cup crew chief.”

Blaney was effusive in his praise of Bullins, who has worked with several drivers at Penske and helped steer the No. 22 team to the last two owner’s championships.

“I think we had four different drivers in ’13 and ’14,” Blaney said. “That speaks to his character and commitment to racing. Not all drivers drive the same. For him to adjust and know what they like, and be successful at it, is amazing. He adjusts so well, and we’re fortunate we got him for this Cup program.

“We’ve created a good bond. We’re both building our careers at the same time. Drivers talk about a personal language you have with your crew chief; we have that, and it’s beneficial.”

With the Wood Brothers at 98 career Cup wins, two more will take them to 100. The goal for the Daytona 500 – assuming the team qualifies for the race – is to emulate Trevor Bayne’s 2011 upset victory, the team’s most recent win.

“We’re gonna try to make that happen!” Blaney said. “We’re expecting we’ll have a very fast car for the 500 and this year overall. They’ve worked really hard on our speedway car for the 500.

“Hopefully we can do it… this car, that race, the history… hopefully we can pull a ‘Trevor Bayne moment.'”

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”