Driving For Penske Fulfills Big Goal For Blaney

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 28 2017

Ryan Blaney’s move from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske was kind of “bittersweet” he said on Wednesday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Team Penske raised the profile of “Silly Season” transactions this week when it announced rising star Ryan Blaney would exit Wood Brothers Racing and join the stock car arm of Roger Penske’s empire as a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series beginning in 2018.

Penske’s return to a three-car operation in NASCAR’s premier series will coincide with a reduction in its Verizon IndyCar Series program from four cars to three beginning in 2018. Earlier this month Penske confirmed it had joined with Acura Motorsports to field a prototype effort in the 2018 IMSA Weather Tech SportsCar Championship.  The program will include a pair of new Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype International (DPi) entries.

While the sports car driver lineup is yet to be confirmed, it is believed three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and current INDYCAR title contender Helio Castroneves will be paired with two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya.

Blaney, who has signed a multi-year contract extension with “The Captain,” will pilot the No. 12 Ford Fusion beginning with the annual non-point “Clash” event at Daytona International Speedway in February.

Blaney will team with current Penske Cup drivers Brad Keselowski _ the 2012 series champion who signed a multi-year contract extension Tuesday to continue in the No. 2 Ford _ and Joey Logano, who signed a multi-year contract extension to drive the No. 22 Fusion earlier this season.  

Simultaneously, Wood Brothers Racing announced that Paul Menard, currently of Richard Childress Racing, will join their Ford team in 2018 to run the No. 21 Fusion vacated by Blaney and a select number of NASCAR Xfinity Series races for Team Penske next year.

While the No. 12 Ford has made a handful of starts in the Cup Series over the last few years, Team Penske has not competed as a fulltime, three-car team since the 2010 season with Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. Details surrounding the No. 12 team, including sponsorship, will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, rival team-owner Richard Childress indicated Menard and his family-backed sponsorship package would be leaving his Chevrolet SS team based in Welcome, N.C., on good terms.

“Paul Menard and Menards, Inc., have had a partnership with RCR for seven years,” Childress said in a statement. “Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.

“Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017. We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

Blaney and Menard joined Tim Cindric, president of Team Penske, and Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers team, during a national teleconference outlining the impending changes. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTION: Eddie, the last few years, you’ve been bringing the young ones up _ Trevor Bayne and Ryan Blaney. Now you’re getting a veteran in Paul Menard. How does that feel?

EDDIE WOOD: “Yeah, we kind of helped Trevor get going and got him ready for Jack (Roush’s) deal full-time. The same has happened with Ryan. Now we move on over to Paul Menard, who is a veteran. Yeah, we’ve had drivers of all ages throughout actually my career. We’ve had the very youngest ones and we’ve had some of the very oldest ones. Paul, he’s there in the middle. So we’re proud to get going, looking forward to it.”

QUESTION: Ryan, how does it feel to be joining Team Penske? Is it a little bittersweet because you have to leave the Wood Brothers?

RYAN BLANEY: “Yeah, it’s been nice to be with the Penske group since 2012, ever since I got into the NASCAR scene, to be building on something that was the main goal, you know, in the future. It’s obviously what we aspired to do ever since we got here. It’s pretty neat to accomplish. Yeah, I would say it’s been a little bittersweet. It’s been great to drive for the Wood Brothers for two-and-a-half, going on three years now. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know them and everything that they’ve done in the sport, just to hear the history of it. It’s nice we’re going to keep an alliance with them, stay really close to that team. It’s nice to be able to drive the No. 12 car and bring Penske a third in-house car. That’s really special, to drive for Roger Penske. It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to.”

QUESTION: Tim, it’s been the understanding it was always the desire to bring Ryan back underneath the Penske umbrella. What was the timeline for when this became realistic for 2018?

TIM CINDRIC: “It’s been seven years really since we’ve been able to put together a third-car program. From the minute we shut down the No. 77 car back in 2010, it was always our goal to ensure if we added a third car, it was one we felt like was going to actually compete at the front. That was our first prerequisite, getting to the point where we felt like we had a program that could, yeah, win races.

“Ryan has been able to spend the time in the Cup Series, has good experience with the Wood Brothers, obviously won a race already (at Pocono Raceway) in the Cup Series. So we felt like the timing was right now. The moons aligned to where things came together on all fronts. That was really the catalyst, was to be sure that we had kind of a front-running driver that we were ready for, I guess, what we’d call our team. Obviously, there’s always the business side of it. We feel like all those things are in place, too.”

QUESTION: Tim, would it be accurate to say that your NASCAR Cup lineup is now set through 2020?

TIM CINDRIC: “I think that’s probably speculation. But I hope it’s set through 2020. I hope it’s set beyond that. But as I said, it’s speculation. I think for the foreseeable future, yeah, we know who our Cup drivers will be.”

QUESTION: Tim and Eddie, you don’t have charters yet for next year. Do you know how you’re going to get one and is it important for you to have one?

TIM CINDRIC: “Yeah, with regard to the No. 12 car, I think we’re well-positioned for a charter. Do we have one ready to go today? I would say we’re not to the point where we’re ready to say we have a charter for that car, but I’m confident we’ll have one in place by the time we go to Daytona.”

EDDIE WOOD: “Yeah, we’re working on one currently. We’re leasing one this year. Last year, we competed the entire season as an open car. We didn’t have a charter. But at this point we are working on one.”

QUESTION: Tim, I know the long-term plan was probably to bring Blaney back. How much did his performance, the way the fans connected with him, and the young gun kind of culture, did that make a difference on your time plan?

TIM CINDRIC: “Yeah, for us, it’s the first time that we’ve been able to see…we’ve tried a couple young drivers here to a certain extent. But to have Ryan start out with us, run some Xfinity races, ARCA races, Truck races with Brad, then the Wood Brothers as a partial season, a couple full seasons…I think if we were able to write a script for where you want somebody to be at this point in their career, I think it’s worked out really well for both of us. He certainly should be proud of what he’s been able to accomplish, how he’s been able to adapt to the changing times.

“There’s more than just driving a race car, as you know. You got to do all the other things that go along with it, especially in our environment. You have to adapt to the current culture. He’s been able to do all those things in a very short period of time. Certainly happy to be here and see him have the opportunity to get into the No. 12 car.”

QUESTION: Ryan, were you always figuring when it was the right time, they’d call you back? What are the challenges you’ll have, even though it’s kind of one big group, to move back?

RYAN BLANEY: “Obviously the main goal when I started was I wanted to drive in the Cup Series for Penske. That was my goal when I started in 2012 when I was just driving Brad’s truck. That’s the main goal ever since you’re a kid. Once you get to that level, I didn’t really know what the timeline was going to be or what the plan was going to be. I just kind of went with what we would figure out year after year, whether it was driving Brad’s trucks, in 2014 when I did Brad’s trucks fulltime, or ‘15 when I did nothing fulltime, I just did some partial schedule stuff, to the fulltime with the Wood Brothers the past few seasons. I just kind of went with everything.

“I knew that the plan was, you know, going to open up eventually. But I was just nice and thankful for the opportunities to get to drive for some great teams and meet some great people along the way. It’s nice that it ended up kind of where it started, for sure. That definitely makes me feel good. But I don’t think there will be any difficulties really. The Wood Brothers, Penske group, we’ve worked really well together the past couple of years. Brad and Joey and everybody on the Penske side pretty much already made me feel at home. Really, the whole Wood Brothers group makes them feel at home. I think that’s what makes our bond really strong. I don’t think really there will be any difficulty transferring to the Penske car fulltime.”

QUESTION: Tim, when you talked about the third car, a lot has changed since 2010, but I also know things didn’t go really well for the third car. Talk about why you think you’re better prepared now than I guess eight years ago. Did things change structurally? Do you feel like you have a better driver?

TIM CINDRIC: “I think if you look at the history prior to 2010, I think as an organization in the Cup Series, we were hit-and-miss. I don’t feel like we were a contender every weekend to win races. I think that hurt us when we were trying to bring a driver forward in Sam, where he didn’t really have a lot of stock car experience. At that point in time there wasn’t a lot of testing. We took a chance. It was something that obviously he was engaged in doing. But our team itself, when you look at the results of the other two cars, it was sometimes.

“I feel like right now it’s an organization where we have things in place and I think we understand why we win _ and I think we understand when we’re not winning why we’re not winning. Before, I don’t think we had that in place. We’ve had quite a bit of continuity since then in a lot of places. We’ve grown our crew chiefs all the way through the Xfinity Series into the Cup Series. We’ve grown a lot of our own people, our own processes. Nothing is a given, but I think we’re much more well-positioned for somebody like Ryan to come in and be successful. I think you see that with the technical partnership we have with the Wood Brothers, because we could have never done that and been successful and won a race with a technical partnership back then either.”

QUESTION: Ryan was on the team’s Facebook live earlier, indicating he wants to run the Indy 500. Have you gotten far down the road on that? Is that something that could happen long-term or perhaps a near future type thing?

TIM CINDRIC: “I got to tune into this Facebook stuff. I got to get connected because I missed that one.”

RYAN BLANEY: “It’s gotten as far down the road as me talking about it. That’s as far as it’s gotten.”

TIM CINDRIC: “Hasn’t got to my room yet, but he’s got a lot of years left.”

QUESTION: Ryan, considering what Brad and Joey have done in Penske cars maybe versus what you were following when you went to the Wood Brothers, do you think there’s more expectations on you performance-wise starting next year?

RYAN BLANEY: “I don’t necessarily think so. I felt like our expectations were held fairly at a high level because we had a great alliance with the Penske group. I think it was just held up there pretty close to what the No. 2 and No. 22 are capable of doing. Maybe a little bit lower than them because I was a rookie and I was kind of just getting started in it. But I definitely don’t feel any added pressure moving in-house or feel like we have to live up to Joey and Brad. I feel like we do the best we can as a team, just like we’re doing this year, and I think we’ll be just fine. I don’t feel that way.”

QUESTION: Paul, there was a lot of talk last year, once Menards and Penske did the deal on the INDYCAR side, that at some point you would end up aligned with Penske. How much that program influenced this decision?

PAUL MENARD: “I mean, if you look at the history of the sport, Roger and my dad (John Menard) have been competitors for years. I think they’ve always had a lot of respect for each other. Everything worked out last year. It was the 50th year of Penske Racing and 100th Indianapolis 500. With my dad’s passion for Indianapolis, they partnered up for the year for five races. Simon Pagenaud wound up winning the championship. Going on for 10 races this year, I believe. Obviously we had some discussions last year.

“It’s been probably a year in the making to get this deal done. But super-excited to work with the Wood Brothers, Eddie and Len, everybody involved in this. Got some really great race cars. Obviously, Ryan’s success has not gone unnoticed. Looking forward to continuing that.”

QUESTION: Ryan, I’m assuming as close as the Penske group and Wood Brothers are, you’ve already gone through those racetrack debrief moments with Brad and Joey where you learned how guys act when they’re a little bit mad…you’ve already had that heat-of-the-moment integration?

RYAN BLANEY: “I guess so. I think Brad and Joey and I work really well together. They’ve been great to talk to. Brad pretty much mentored me, letting me drive his trucks. He’s someone I’ve always looked up to. Joey, I have huge respect for. He’s been a huge help to me over the years. He got thrown into the sport fairly young. It’s been nice to talk to him, how he kind of overcame that, what he did to try to get better over the years. So I don’t really think there’s anything negative about Brad, Joey and myself. I think we have a great relationship. I think that’s what makes the team so strong, is the drivers get along well. That just makes everything better, whether it’s communication off the racetrack with car setup or driving-wise, to on the racetrack of playing nice together. I think that just is beneficial for all the teams.”

QUESTION: Eddie, does this chapter feel any different moving forward with Paul because it’s not Trevor, where he’s going to develop, go back to Roush, or Ryan, whose job it was to get back to Team Penske? Does it feel any different organizationally?

EDDIE WOOD: “Now that you brought up, I guess, yeah. It’s a good feeling to know the driver you have now is going to be with you a while. Both programs we did with Trevor beginning it, you know, over at Roush Fenway, that worked out. Actually, Trevor was only supposed to be there maybe a year at the most. He stayed longer. The same with Ryan. The initial expectations of everyone was Ryan was going to go back to Team Penske wherever they were ready. We’re fortunate enough to have got to keep him a couple of extra years also. That really worked out well for us. Moving forward with Paul, he’s going to be our driver. I think that’s going to be good.”

QUESTION: The crew chief for Ryan Blaney for next year, obviously he has one at Wood Brothers Racing _ is there potential Jeremy Bullins will follow him back to Team Penske? Do you have any thoughts on that yet?

TIM CINDRIC: “Honestly, that’s the plan. That’s the plan, the two of them will stay together.”

QUESTION: As far as sponsorship, will Menards be a part of Ryan Blaney’s car as well?

TIM CINDRIC: “We’re still working through pretty much everything on the No. 12 car. We have some things that are solid and some things that we’re still working on. I would say that’s something that’s yet to be determined.”

QUESTION: Ryan, what’s your take on having Jeremy Bullins follow you to the No. 12?

RYAN BLANEY: “Yeah, it’s been really great to work with Jeremy ever since I got here. He was crew chief on the Xfinity car in 2012 when I arrived. I believe that was his first year here. I came halfway through the season. I got to work with him a lot. Brad was running for the championship, of course, that year. I got to drive the Xfinity car a bunch, get to work with Jeremy a lot. Andrea Mueller was on that car, as well, who is my engineer now on the No. 21 side. So, it’s been great to work with her.

“To work with Jeremy pretty much ever since I got here, to bring him from the Xfinity cars to the Cup cars, to work with him and get to know him personally has been really beneficial. I think that really says a lot when you can have a crew chief you’re personal friends with, just because you build a relationship, can communicate so easily, can sit around and talk about things, whether it’s racing or not. I think if you build that relationship, that just makes you faster and better at the racetrack where you can figure things out and kind of know how they think, whether it’s changes or what they’re thinking as far as strategy-wise. It’s been amazing to have him ever since my career got started. Hopefully I can carry on with that for a long time.”

QUESTION: Eddie and Paul, any thoughts on a crew chief for the No. 21 yet for next year?

EDDIE WOOD: “As it stands right now, our crew chief is going to be Greg Erwin. He’s already in the Penske fold. That worked really well with Jeremy already having experience over here, knowing all the protocol, the way they conduct meetings, all the things that they do behind the scenes. Greg has already been a part of that. Len and I spent some time around Greg over at Roush Fenway when he was over there, got to know him quite a bit. So we’re looking forward to that.”

PAUL MENARD: “To add to that, I’ve known Greg since his Robby Gordon days. I drove Robby’s car, qualified it a couple times when Robby was down in Baja. Worked with Greg in the past. Spent some time with him here recently. Great guy, knows the systems over here. It’s going to ease the transition.”

QUESTION: Ryan, I imagine for a young racer, it must feel pretty good to have your two jobs with the Wood Brothers and now with Penske Racing?

RYAN BLANEY: “It’s been special to be with two of the most iconic teams and owners in NASCAR. That’s been pretty great to be a part of and get to know the history of each team, from the Wood Brothers to the Penske side. Not even on the NASCAR side with Mr. Penske, from the Indy car side, even anything outside of motorsports, or the sports car side. It’s been neat to know the bandwidth he’s had. Just to really get to know somebody like that is special to me. I’ve been really lucky to drive for two great teams and get to know some great families and great people along the way. Growing up in the sport, I looked up to teams like this: the Wood Brothers and the Penske organization. To drive for them is definitely something that I would always want to do as a kid. It’s really nice to be able to be in a spot to do that.”

QUESTON: There’s been a lot of big announcements in the last week and a-half or so. Was it always planned you would make the announcement when you got everything settled?

TIM CINDRIC: “It’s usually best to get all the boxes lined up before we actually go out and do something we can’t stand up to. We needed to get everything aligned. In motorsports it’s hard to do that, for sure. It involves a lot of people in a lot of different areas. For sure, there were bits and pieces along the way. Some things get sorted at the last minute, other things are longer-term plans as we would talk about with Ryan, kind of his career. I’m a believer in things happen for a reason. This is good on a lot of fronts.”

QUESTION: Eddie, what was the attraction to Paul Menard to drive the No. 21 car in 2018?

EDDIE WOOD: “When we started all this, we knew the plan with Ryan was short-term. We didn’t really know how long it was going to be before he returned to Team Penske for the third car. You get to looking around at who you want, who you’d like to have. There obviously a group of names that we looked at. This opportunity and everything just kind of fell into place at exactly the right time. I said, ‘Here we go.’ We’re looking forward to it.”

QUESTION: Tim, your Xfinity team for 2018, is that going to remain two cars? What are you going to do for a crew chief on the No. 22 car, perhaps Brian Wilson?

TIM CINDRIC: “It’s really just one car. We essentially run the No. 12 car once in a while, but not very often at all. It’s really a one-car Xfinity team as it exists today. Don’t foresee that changing for next year. Yeah, our plan would be for Brian Wilson to take the reins of the No. 22 Xfinity car.”

QUESTION: Paul, Ryan made his mark in the Wood Brothers car partly because of his driving skill and personality. Might this be a chance for you to make your own mark. Does that make sense?

PAUL MENARD: “I’d sure love to. Wood Brothers have 99 Cup wins. Ryan gave them their 99th. I hope they get their 100th this year. If they don’t, I’m going to drive my tail off to try to get it next year. You look at the history of NASCAR, the Wood Brothers have been there the whole time. I’m just a small piece of this whole puzzle through the years. I’d like to leave my mark somehow.”

EDDIE WOOD: “I was just going to add that last week, Len and I got to put Blaney’s picture up on our wall. We have a wall on our museum in Virginia of all the guys that have won races in our car. Just last week we put Blaney’s picture up there. That was really special. We got room for another one, so we’re looking forward to getting to put Paul’s up there. We’re looking forward to all this.”


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 28 2017
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