It’s a home game for the Wood Brothers.
But the April 3 STP 500 is a home game the Wood Brothers haven’t experienced as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team with a single driver since Ken Schrader filled the seat of the vaunted No. 21 Ford in 2006.
We’re talking about Martinsville, of course, the shortest track on the Sprint Cup circuit at .526 miles, the closest to the Wood Brothers’ family home in Stuart, Va., and the next race on the Sprint Cup schedule (April 3 at 1 p.m. on FS1).
“It’s a huge thing,” says NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Leonard Wood, who co-founded NASCAR’s most venerable organization with brother, driver and fellow Hall of Famer Glen Wood.
“We look forward to going to Martinsville. We used to run over there and have a lot of fun.”
The Wood Brothers last competed at Martinsville in 2011, when Trevor Bayne’s unexpected victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 gave the family-owned team the wherewithal to run more races than originally planned.
The Woods’ last trip to the paper-clip-shaped track before Bayne’s 35th-place run was with veteran driver Bill Elliott in 2008.
This year, they return to the track with Sunoco Rookie of the Year hopeful Ryan Blaney, a 22-year-old who has never driven a Sprint Cup car at Martinsville, though he does have five NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races under his belt there.
Blaney appreciates the significance Martinsville holds within his organization.
“It’s really a home race for those guys, and almost for me, too,” Blaney said. “I grew up in High Point, North Carolina, an hour away from Martinsville, and I vividly remember every Martinsville race I went to, watched my dad (Dave Blaney) run it.
“And it’s really neat to go back and bring the Wood Brothers back there and have them in their hometown and home state. Hopefully, we’ll see a bunch of Wood Brothers fans out there. I think we will.”
Obviously, Leonard Wood’s memory is a bit longer than Blaney’s, dating to the days in the early 1950s when Martinsville was still a dirt half-mile. In 1953, Glen Wood raced there for the first time at NASCAR’s highest level in a ’53 Lincoln.
“It had power steering on it, and the power steering was so easy that we had to mark the steering wheel, because, when the track was wet, it was so smooth you couldn’t feel it,” Leonard Wood says.
In 1959, Glen Wood won the pole at Martinsville with a lap at 69.471 mph, a track record at the time. All told, Glen won four poles there, though he never won a race in NASCAR’s premier division. In fact, the only two Martinsville victories recorded by the Wood Brothers in 109 starts came with NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (1968) and David Pearson (1973) behind the wheel.
When Blaney completes his 22nd lap at the .526-mile track on Apr. 3, it will mark 45,000 laps in Cup competition at Martinsville for the Wood Brothers.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the beneficence of track founder Clay Earles, the Woods spent countless hours testing there.
Leonard recalls one instance where Glen was testing the team’s “back-seat car,” a 1937 Ford with both the engine and driver’s seat moved radically toward the rear of the car. Glen though the car needed a bigger spindle on the right front. From observing the car on the track, Leonard wasn’t so sure.
“So I climbed in and rode with him around the track at Martinsville,” Leonard says. “He is just flying through the corners, and it felt like there’s about 10 tons of pressure on the right front. It was getting so much grip that I was just holding on, like it was trying to throw me right out the window.
“I’m trying to get him to slow down. He can’t hear me. Finally we came to a stop. And I said, ‘Glen, you need a bigger spindle on that right front.’”
Blaney’s experience clearly is a lot more limited, and he’s not sure racing the trucks at Martinsville will be all that helpful, even though he posted fifth-place finishes in his last three starts.
“I think there are some things you can take away from running the truck races,” Blaney said, “but I think there’s a reason why the Cup guys don’t normally run both of them. For one thing, it’s really hard on your body. And, two, I hear it kind of messes them up when they run both, trying to be consistent between the two cars.
“There are probably some things we can take away, and I’m looking forward to learning and everything like that, but there’s not a lot that you can take away.”
Though Blaney readily admits Martinsville hasn’t been one of his best tracks, he credits crew chief Jeremy Bullins with helping to retool his attitude.
“Last year, when we announced the full-time deal, I said ‘Martinsville’s the one place I’m not looking forward to,’ and he persuaded me (otherwise),” Blaney said. “And now I’m looking forward to going to Martinsville, and I want to go real bad.
“So it’s nice to have someone that can motivate you.”
Doubtless, on Apr. 3, there will be a large contingent of fans in the grandstands trying to amplify that support.
After all, it’s a home game for the Wood Brothers—and by extension and proximity, for Blaney, too.