Martinsville, Va. — If the Wood Brothers need any advice for Sunday’s critical playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, the team can turn to family patriarch Glenn Wood.
Just 30 minutes up the road from the speedway, the Hall-of-Famer is still based in Stuart, the Virginia town where one of NASCAR’s oldest teams was formed. Wood is 92 now, only uses his iPhone to take pictures of trees he’s cut down on his land, but relies on technology to follow Ryan Blaney’s breakout season.
Wood, it turns out, records every race on a VCR. Then he calls sons Eddie and Len, who now run the team, to talk about the race.
“He’ll go back and analyze it and talk to us about it, like if we do something — we ran out of fuel somewhere and he was like, ‘Did you all think you were at Darlington?’” Eddie Wood said Saturday at Martinsville.
“He’s got his own little tape recorder and he’s got drawers and drawers of (tapes.) He never duplicates or never tapes over one he’s already got. He just gets new ones. I didn’t know you could still buy them … but he analyzes all these races just like we all do.”
The whole gang expects to hear from Wood as the No. 21 Ford unexpectedly begins this third round of NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s not that Blaney doesn’t deserve to be in this elite round of eight, it’s just that few predicted the second-year Cup driver would make it this deep into the playoffs.
Blaney drove his way into this round a week ago at Kansas Speedway, where a penalty dropped him to 40th on the starting grid. But in a drive that Eddie Wood deemed worthy of David Pearson, the Hall-of-Famer who made this team so competitive so many decades ago, Blaney finished third.
“Starting into that race and you’ve got to start 40th, that requires patience and a lot of thought and a lot of awareness about what’s going on. Those qualities were one of David Pearson’s greatest assets,” Eddie Wood said.
Blaney, at 23 years old, is an historian of the sport and thinks the Pearson comparison is way overboard.
“You’re crazy, Eddie, if you think that I’m even capable of that, but it was really nice of you to say,” Blaney said. “That was really neat to hear, but I don’t agree with you.”
Blaney is going to need another huge run Sunday to remain in contention for one of the four spots in the championship race. A victory in any of the next three races earns an automatic berth into the finale, and fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski has already said his team believes it must win Martinsville to advance.
Only problem: All eight drivers still racing for the championship have that same mentality, and the field includes nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson. It was his victory on the paperclip last year that vaulted Johnson to his record-tying seventh Cup title.
There are four former series champions — Johnson, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — and somewhat overlooked is Denny Hamlin. A five-time Martinsville winner, Hamlin has been overshadowed by Toyota teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Busch.
Truex has a series-best seven wins this season and is favored right now to win the title, while Busch has simply been better than Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Because Hamlin managed an average finishing position of 6.3 in this round last year and was still eliminated, he’s got just one plan for Sunday.
“There’s a number in my head of how many points I need to earn each week, I think, to make it in on points, but I plan on winning,” said Hamlin, who was fastest in Saturday morning’s first practice.
So Blaney, who ranks seventh ahead of Chase Elliott in the playoff standings, has his work cut out for him Sunday. He’s never finished higher than 19th in three previous Cup starts at Martinsville, but the Wood Brothers have 99 career wins and the organization would love for milestone victory 100 to get Blaney into the championship.
Eddie and Len Wood said their parents are excited.
“We haven’t been in this position ever, really,” Eddie Wood said. “I think it’s just as new for them as it is us, but we’re just thankful to be here.”
Blaney understands the team is playing with house money and he’d love to gamble his way into the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale.
“All I know is we got into the next round and I look forward to Martinsville and doing what we need to do to be good here,” he said. “I feel like when we worry about ourselves, we’re our best, when we’re not paying attention to everybody else. When we can focus on the 21 car, that’s when everybody is at their best.”
Noah Gragson won his first career Truck Series race by passing two-time champion Matt Crafton on the final restart at Martinsville Speedway. Gragson, who is from Las Vegas, won for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Busch, who also is from Las Vegas, uses that team to groom young talent.
Gragson is the 10th first-time Truck Series winner at Martinsville, and his victory denied a driver from earning an automatic berth in the championship race of the playoffs.
The race at Martinsville was the first in the round of six for the series. Two drivers will be eliminated from the field, and Gragson is not championship-eligible.
Crafton finished second and Johnny Sauter was third. Each of the playoff drivers won a stage of Saturday’s race.
Harrison Burton was fourth and followed by Todd Gilliland.
In Mexico City, Lewis Hamilton will have to chase his fourth Formula One season championship from behind Sebastian Vettel.
Blistering late laps by Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen will have Ferrari and Red Bull starting 1-2 at the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday. Hamilton is set to start third. He leads Vettel in the season title chase by 66 points and can win it if he finishes fifth or better.
Vettel edged Verstappen by 0.086 seconds Saturday for pole position.
Hamilton has said he’ll push for a 10th win this season even if he doesn’t need it for the season championship. He’ll try to avoid any potential crash at the start when Vettel and Verstappen push for the first turn.
In Singapore, Vettel veered across the track to block Verstappen in a move that triggered a crash that took out both cars. Hamilton avoided damage and went on to win.