INTERVIEW: Len Wood on the state of the 21

Image by Jarrett/LAT

INTERVIEW: Len Wood on the state of the 21

NASCAR

INTERVIEW: Len Wood on the state of the 21

Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Len Wood says the way 2018 has gone so far this season has “exceeded where we expected to be.”

Wood Brothers hired Paul Menard as the next driver of the No. 21 when Ryan Blaney made the expected departure to go in-house with alliance partner Team Penske. Blaney left the team after putting them in victory lane for the first time in seven years at Pocono Raceway, which also qualified them for the playoffs. In two full seasons, Blaney earned one win, 23 top-10 finishes and seven top-five finishes.

Low-key veteran Menard is now left to carry on the team’s success. Through the first 21 races, Menard has four top-10 finishes and will have to fight from below the cutoff line to make the playoffs.

But in analyzing the numbers and comparing how Menard is doing versus Blaney’s previous seasons, Menard is not far off Blaney’s results in his first season with WBR, something Wood referenced during his conversation with RACER on Saturday morning at Watkins Glen:

Q: Now into August with the playoffs approaching, how do you feel the season has gone after making the driver swap?

Len Wood: There has been a couple of races that we didn’t perform like we should have in the last three or four. We thought we had a good run going to try to get our way in points-wise in the playoffs. We’ve had some strong runs. Unfortunately, two of our speedway races ended in wrecks when we had really good cars, think we won a stage at Talladega. Second stage I believe it was.

So, we’re right there on the line, just need a good run here. I think we finished fifth at the first Michigan if we can duplicate that … and then Darlington and Bristol are a little bit of a crapshoot for everybody with the traffic. Then the last race going in is Indianapolis, which is where Paul has his first win. Hopefully, we can transfer into the playoffs and then we’ll consider it a really good season because of that.

Q: So you’re staying optimistic that even though it’s a pretty big gap if you do your jobs, you’ll have a shot at it?

LW: We’ve got a shot at it. We were 55 points behind [Alex] Bowman coming out of Kentucky I think it was, and didn’t have a real good Loudon and kind of lost part of that back. And then Bowman went and had a really good race at Pocono, he scored stage points and finished third I believe, so that kind of stepped him up a little bit. But we should be OK.”

Image by Thacker/LAT

Q: You mentioned exceeding where you thought you would be. What expectations did you come in with that you feel you’ve done that?

LW: Well, we have a pretty much new team this year. I think that’s what a lot of people didn’t account, was we had a crew chief change and with that went to engineering stuff. Basically, Blaney’s group that we had last year, all the Penske employees or whatever, they moved with him, and we got new ones. So, we had a lot of new people. It’s kind of like starting over again. If you go back and look with us, we ran a partial schedule with Blaney and then a couple years with him full-time. So the first full-time year I wanted to be equal to that or better, and we are. There again, Blaney was being a rookie … it’s comparing different kinds of apples. Not apples to oranges, but a red apple to a yellow apple.

You don’t want to set your expectations that we’re going to win five races, and then you don’t win any, and you’re all dejected. We set reasonable goals.

Q: Which was? Because I’m assuming you come in knowing what the team is capable of but you take into account the new group.

LW: We knew Paul’s capabilities. For us, [on] the speedways we got a sixth at Daytona but the other two we didn’t get the finish to go with it. You’ve got to plan on some bad days. There again, I think we’re ahead of where we thought we would be.

Q: Last year during the announcement you mentioned Paul told you he would come in and race his butt off. Is he the driver you expected him to be?

LW: Yeah. I think he’s done everything we asked him to do. If you look at the whole Ford group, one group is better than all the rest, and that’s made it a little more difficult for the rest of the Ford drivers…I don’t know how you want to put that.

Image by Whitton/LAT

Paul is the nicest guy you could talk to. He doesn’t get excited. We run calm races with him and Greg Erwin. One time in 20-something races has there been like, why are we doing this, where are you at? Basically a raised voice. One time. And I’m not saying Blaney, but some people could be 10 times a race. So, we run a much calmer race now, and I like that. Him and Greg are on the same wavelength on what the car needs.

A better example is qualifying. With Blaney the last couple years we would be fastest in one of the two rounds of qualifying, but not the third. And it was like six times we were one or the other, but not the right one. And once we figured out what he needed, then OK we got a pole at Kansas and Phoenix. Same with Paul. You get up there like almost going to do it and didn’t, and finally, at Chicago, we hit the right thing. Now, that doesn’t work every week, but it did that day. Which gives you confidence you can do it again.

There again, it’s all in getting used to each other. It is very rare to find it where it all gels like you would want [right away]. What we’ve seen so far of Paul, we like his driving style. We just got to work harder and be smart in the races we run because Greg has done a good job of pit strategy.

Q: Overall everything is good and you’re happy?

LW: We’re happy. But like I said, I’ll be happier if we make that playoffs. And I don’t want to stop at that — making the playoffs and oh that’s it. I think that is a goal I would like to achieve, but if we don’t, we’ll keep our head up and try to be 17th in the points.

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