<
>

Ryan Blaney bringing Wood Brothers back to the fore

The lack of a NASCAR charter isn't hindering Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Pity the charter-less Wood Brothers? Don't bother. It's early, but Sprint Cup rookie Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 team are running circles around many of their charter-sporting peers.

Having a NASCAR charter is huge, of course. Financial stability, guaranteed starting spots and other benefits are a boon -- especially for fledgling teams trying to make a mark.

But not having one isn't an unscalable mountain.

The Wood Brothers are a case in point. The veteran team -- active in NASCAR since the early 1950s -- didn't qualify for one of Sprint Cup's 36 charters when the new system was put in place before this season. Charters were granted to the teams that have competed full time since 2013; the Wood Brothers' last full-time season was '08.

Regardless of what many considered to be a cruel twist of fate, the No. 21 team was confident entering 2016. It was also on pundits' radars. With a rising talent like Blaney, a four-time winner in both the Xfinity and truck series, behind the wheel and a burgeoning alliance with powerhouse Team Penske, the Wood Brothers were a trendy sleeper pick to qualify for the 16-team Chase.

Four races in, Blaney & Co. appear on track to do just that. Blaney enters this weekend's race at Auto Club Speedway in California riding the momentum of two straight top-10 finishes, the first time the Wood Brothers have recorded consecutive top-10s since 2005. Blaney was a strong sixth two weeks ago at Las Vegas and gutted out a 10th-place finish after early handling problems last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

"We fought really hard all day," Blaney said postrace in Phoenix. "We got a lot better throughout the day. We didn't start out that great and we just got better as we went along. ... It was a good day and a good job by everybody on this Motorcraft Quick Lane team."

The workmanlike effort propelled Blaney up two spots to 12th in the standings, 19 points above the Chase cut line. He leads Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott by four points in the rookie of the year race, which is shaping up as the best in years.

Among those with a close eye on Blaney's progress is Roger Penske himself. The legendary owner is a big believer in Blaney's potential and happy an arrangement could be found for the 22-year-old to run a full Cup schedule.

"Our plan with him has really worked out well," Penske told a small group of reporters during IndyCar's opening weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida. "He's been with us now four years, and I think the fact that we've been able to provide the car and we've got [crew chief] Jeremy Bullins over there working with the Woods is a perfect thing for us because we can build him without the pressure of being with Brad [Keselowski] and Joey [Logano]. Yet he can use them as a benchmark because he has access to all their information and the cars and the pieces are all the same. He's gonna be good."

A good start is one thing, but staying power over a nine-month haul is another. That could be a lot to ask for a team that is getting reacclimated to a full-time competition and has enjoyed only moderate success (two wins since 2001, including the 2011 Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne) over the past two decades.

But the Vegas result alone -- early strength on 1.5-mile tracks is often a harbinger -- suggests Blaney's solid start has legs. The performance also showed the team is capable of making quick improvements, as Blaney struggled to a 25th-place finish in Atlanta on Feb. 28, the season's first race on a 1.5-miler.

Then there's the Team Penske alliance, which is probably the biggest reason to believe the Wood Brothers are poised to thrive. In a sport that seemingly grows more reliant on engineering by the day, Team Penske is the standard for Ford teams. And that's a great thing for the Wood Brothers, who now have invaluable insight regarding chassis setups and other technical aspects of the sport.

Penske appears to have embraced the relationship with the Wood Brothers, stopping just short of saying he views the No. 21 car as a third Team Penske entry.

"Today it's entered by the Wood Brothers. They're involved in the strategy, they've got some guys working on it. It's perfect," he said. "We put that car there with the Wood Brothers, we built a crew around it, and the goal is ultimately to have that as a Penske entry, or maybe now a Woods/Penske entry with the charter system.

"We just have to see how that all works out. Then we can continue on. It's a great way to bring a driver along in good equipment and I think the partnership with the Woods has been ... I think if you asked them, I think they're happy with the way it is and we certainly are. It's really a byproduct of what Ford wants us to do to keep the Woods in the game."

In the game -- and currently running like a contender. Still, people are bound to question the team's long-term viability, which is fair. There's still a sharp learning curve for Blaney, and the team will have to prove itself all over again on the many tracks its part-time schedule didn't include.

But there's no denying that the foundation is in place, even without the bedrock of a charter. Based on what we've seen in the early stages of 2016, Blaney and the Wood Brothers are a good bet to outperform many of the teams that supposedly have a lot more working in their favor.

-- Scott Symmes is an editor for ESPN.com