It’s been nearly 10 years since the famed Wood Brothers Racing”s No. 21 Ford team has competed full-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Their current driver just turned 13 years old prior to the 2007 season and one of their primary drivers was Bill Elliott.
Fast forward to 2016 and Bill’s son Chase is competing for Rookie of the Year honors against Ryan Blaney, the new full-time driver of the No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Fusion. To say the least, Blaney is one of the top young drivers in NASCAR racing to watch this year.
Blaney has competed in 18 Cup races over the past two years with two top-10 finishes and six top-20 efforts. The High Point, NC native has shown his prowess in the major three NASCAR series with four wins each in the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series since 2012. In the No. 21 ride last year, the third generation racer scored a solid fourth at the May Talladega race and a strong seventh place effort in the fall Kansas event.
This season will be intriguing as it’s encompassed with several changes. There’s the new low downforce rules package, the retirement of one of the sport’s iconic drivers last year, and one of the most prestigious rookie classes in recent memory.
Moreover, the return of one of the sport’s legendary teams with one of the most promising and brightest young racers in NASCAR is a fascinating storyline to watch throughout 2016. This combination has the makings to bring the No. 21 team back into Victory Lane for the first time since the 2011 Daytona 500.
Recently, we caught up with Blaney to talk about the upcoming season, his journey in NASCAR, as well as his take on the latest installment to the Star Wars franchise.
Maybe Blaney isn’t from a galaxy far, far away but his potential and poise in that driver’s seat is strong with this young Jedi knight. No more nerd talk so let’s start “Dropping the Hammer with Ryan Blaney” on The Podium Finish!
Rob Tiongson : 2016 marks not only your rookie campaign in the Cup series but it’s also the Wood Brothers’ first full-time campaign in a decade. How excited are you to get to work with Jeremy Bullins to focus on a full slate of Cup racing?
Ryan Blaney : I’m very excited to go back racing. With it being my first full Cup season and the Wood Brothers return to full-time, I think it’s going to be a fun year all around.
RT : You got some valuable experience in the 21 car last year with impressive top-10 finishes at Talladega and Kansas alongside some great runs at places like Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Homestead. Are there certain tracks where you feel like you have a strong grasp at immediately off the bat and some where you feel like you’re making some gains?
RB : Being able to run most of the tracks last year got us good experience that we can build off of. For the places we haven’t been to, there is going to be a steep learning curve but I think we can adapt quickly.
RT : With the resources you have with the Wood Brothers and with your allies at Team Penske, how quickly do you see your team acclimating to the new rules package in place? From the times you got to try it out at Kentucky briefly and at Darlington in the Southern 500, was it a handful or a fun balancing act with driving those low downforce cars?
RB : The package this year is a handful yet fun to drive. I feel like we accumulated good info last year in the couple races but still have a ways to go.
RT : You’ll be racing against some familiar faces in this year’s rookie class including Chase Elliott, Brian Scott, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Chris Buescher. From your perspective, as a driver and racing insider, how would you stack up your competition for the rookie honors?
RB : It’s a tough rookie class indeed. I’ve had the pleasure of racing with all of them and they are all great drivers. It will be fun competing with them all year.
RT : While you are a rookie, you’ve proven that you can adapt quickly to any kind of NASCAR vehicle you’ve clambered into since 2012. What’s your expectations heading into the season with your 21 team?
RB : I feel like we can run well every week. It’s a steep learning curve but with our Penske alliance, we have great information and resources. I feel like a good goal to have is try and run all the laps. Then I think the good finishes will come.
RT : It’s no secret that you are a Star Wars fan so I have to ask, what’s your thoughts on The Force Awakens with the new trio of heroes and the lack of Jar Jar Binks in the film?
RB : I liked the new Star Wars movie. I think they did a great job turning the series around and I’m looking forward to Episode 8. I’m excited Jar Jar isn’t in it.
RT : Would you say that you’re one of your toughest critics in terms of how you evaluate each of your races during and after the weekend?
RB : I judge myself pretty hard and critique everything I do. Sometimes it’s good as I like to try and get as good as possible. I don’t get my feelings hurt too easily so I’ll take all the criticism I can get.
RT : There’s been a plethora of changes in NASCAR for this year ranging from new faces to new rules packages. How do you perceive the state of our sport and are you excited for the future of stock car racing?
RB : I think our sport is going nowhere but forward. The changes we have made to the cars is a step in the right directions. I feel like the drivers and fans will enjoy it.
RT : Going back to the experience you gained last year, I recalled how grueling the conditions were at Loudon last July with the heat and humidity. How do you condition yourself to combat against the elements when it’s not the most comfortable of experiences in the car?
RB : Loudon was a hot one for sure. I think the conditioning we have set in place are great for our sport and Penske does a great job at this.
RT : When you reflect on the fact that it was nearly five years ago when you scored that K&N West win at Phoenix and realize you’re where many young racers aspire to be at such a young age, does it seem like time’s flown at all?
RB : Time has flown for sure. I would’ve never thought I’d be racing for the Wood Brothers full-time in the Cup Series. I have been very fortunate to get these kind of opportunities and I am lucky to be here.
Author’s Notes : Our thanks goes to Ryan Blaney for taking the time to talk racing with us here on TPF! All of the photos in the article are courtesy of Wood Brothers Racing. You can follow Ryan and the No. 21 team this season on here as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Best of luck to Ryan and the Wood Brothers effort in 2016!