Race Weekend Central

Reviving the Legacy: What Is the Path Forward for Wood Brothers Racing?

In an era where most NASCAR paint schemes change from week to week, one team can be quickly identified among its peers.

No matter the number or sponsor placement, the generation of the car, or even if the car is painted or wrapped, a car featuring cherry red on top from the tip of the hood to the back of the decklid with white on the side panels has become a familiar sight in NASCAR.

On the side is a gold No. 21, now back in its glistening, metallic form.

It’s a scheme that has undergone minor variations since the Wood Brothers brought it to the track for the first time in 1950.

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Since that year, NASCAR’s oldest team has forged one of the most iconic legacies in racing, from inventing choreographed pit stops to gracing victory lane 99 times with Hall-of-Fame drivers.

The newest page to the team’s book came on April 26, as third-generation Wood family members Jon Wood, Jordan Wood Hicks and Keven Wood carry the team into its next phase as co-owners. Jon was named team president, inheriting the role from his father, Eddie.

Family is what the team is built on and centered around, pushing a drive to be successful at NASCAR’s highest level.

“The way our team has operated is the way it operated back in 1970, and ’80 and ’90,” Jon told Frontstretch. “Back then, you didn’t have team presidents, director of marketing, or a marketing department, or a finance department, or any of those things. You had owners, crew chiefs, mechanics and guys who had jobs during the week and went on the weekends to help out.”

For nearly 75 years, the team has truly been a family affair. Jon said that Glen Wood instilled principles in his dad, Len Wood and Kim Wood Hall that everyone was an equal, giving the family an equal voice when it came to the race team

While Jon was pushing for more structure within the organization, the decision to move him to team president was a surprise. But that desire for more structure came from observations in the changing landscape of NASCAR’s ownership, as Trackhouse Racing and 23XI Racing have brought on celebrity co-owners while Brad Keselowski has revamped RFK Racing. That push came from finding a balance between Jon’s forte and what his family has done in the past.

“I think I’m a little bit more open-minded,” he said. “I’m more willing to make change, I’m more willing to adjust. They are more traditionalists in that if something is working, there is no reason to mess with it. I think the correct balance is somewhere in the middle […] But to say that I’m taking over for my dad, that would be a lie. [Eddie] still has an equal amount of influence and power that he had last week.”

In the short amount of days since the announcement was made, some have questioned why the change was made 11 weeks into the NASCAR Cup Series season. However, as Jon said, many things will stay the same. At the same time, it creates the potential for a reset that the team is in need of.

Since a Cinderella upset by Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500, WBR has seen its peaks and valleys. Bayne only competed part-time for the team until 2015, only notching two top 10s after his lone Cup victory.

In 2015, the team signed a young driver named Ryan Blaney to race part-time. At 21 years old, Blaney grabbed a top five and two top 10s in 16 starts. That led to a promotion to full-time racing in 2016. The next season, Blaney put the Wood Brothers back on the map consistently, winning the 99th race for the team at Pocono Raceway, and making a playoff run that stretched into the Round of 8.

Unfortunately, WBR’s alliance with Team Penske allowed Roger Penske to put Blaney in a third Penske car, where he has since won nine races and sits as the reigning Cup champion. The questions of ‘what if’ have to arise if Blaney had stayed in the No. 21.

Next up for the Wood Bros. was Paul Menard, a grizzled veteran who brought sponsorship and took care of the racecar. Like much of his career, Menard wasn’t spectacular, but he brought home consistent finishes, which translated to two 19th-place points positions.

Late in 2019, Menard announced his retirement, and the keys were handed over to fan-favorite Matt DiBenedetto.

Optimism ran high initially, as DiBenedetto captured 11 top 10s and gave the team just its second playoff berth. But the team experienced the other end of the spectrum the next season, as DiBenedetto missed the playoffs and finished 18th in points. Before the season had even reached the playoffs, Penske wanted another driver in the No. 21.

That driver is the team’s current pilot, Harrison Burton. And unfortunately, the team’s success has come few and far between.

Now in his third season for WBR, Burton only has a total five top 10s — his three predecessors each eclipsed that in one season. He currently sits 32nd in points after results of 27th and 31st the previous two seasons.

Those numbers and the performance have virtually put the team at a crossroads. For an organization that has shockingly never won a driver’s championship and is stuck on 99 wins, the struggles boost the urgency to turn things around.

“Right now, it’s been challenging,” Wood said. “It’s not necessarily been anyone’s fault. I’m not going to blame Harrison, I’m not going to blame Jeremy [Bullins, crew chief], I’m not going to blame, I just know we’ve got to fix it. And that will happen. We’ve done it before, and it’s temporary.”

Wood made the point that many teams in the past have struggled while appearing just to grab a paycheck. That’s not Wood Brothers Racing. It is at the track to further build its legacy and do the best at what it does. With tier one engines coming from Roush Yates Engines and cars coming from Penske, the equipment is there for the team to turn a corner.

What has added salt to the team’s wound is the well-documented fact that Ford is off to its worst start since 2010. Blaney is the sole Ford inside the top 10 in points, and only four Blue Ovals are in a position to make the playoffs.

Yet, 2023 showed a similar trajectory. Seven of the first 11 races were won by a Hendrick Motorsports or Toyota driver. Only Joey Logano won a race for Ford in that stretch. By the end of the season, Blaney’s No. 12 was the fastest car, ultimately ending in a championship.

“I feel like the balance of power never within NASCAR never stays with one manufacturer for long,” Wood said. “Inversely to that, one doesn’t struggle for long either.”

Those beliefs about Ford can go hand-in-hand with the word the 42-year-old used to describe the struggles of WBR: temporary.

In order to bring those temporary struggles to an end soon, the team’s vision may look different come silly season.

While most driver contract terms are not disclosed anymore, Burton’s was up in 2023 until it was extended to this season. That could make 2024 a make-or-break year, and with no disrespect to Burton, it has been the latter thus far.

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If a change is made, not much noise has been made yet about who could be in the market. Michael McDowell seems to be at his peak at Front Row Motorsports, but with their contracts typically being a year-to-year deal and the No. 34 team struggling to start the year, the No. 21 could be a prime opportunity.

With reports that Kroger could be leaving JTG Daugherty Racing, that may leave 2023 Daytona 500 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looking for a ride. A potential downsizing at Stewart-Haas Racing may also leave one driver on the market.

Should the team go in a different direction, they could also pick up another young talent. The Ford pipeline is thin compared to the competition, but the blue oval has not been shy to lure prospects away for an immediate Cup opportunity. Just look at Burton, who was at Joe Gibbs Racing when he signed with the team.

It was a young talent that helped revamp the organization, and perhaps another one is out there who could. Conversely, a veteran could help bring more notes and provide some established traction for the team.

No matter what the future of the No. 21 seat holds, the promotion of the third-generation trio brings much optimism to the team. The equipment, drive, and vision are in place for this team to return to being a weekly contender.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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CHIEF

As long as this legendary team is running Fords, any future successes is not likely. hendricknascars aero and horsepower rules packages prohibits any such successes unless you are driving a GM or Lexus.

Drew

I’m still hoping that wood brothers racing is still going to get there 100th win in the NASCAR cup series and for Harrison Burton getting his first career win for the team.

ArkyBass

Everyone pulls for the Wood Brothers. Whats not to like. I wish them future success!

Bobby

While it is true that everyone pulls for the Wood brothers….the reality, based on statistics alone, says that it is not going to happen with Harrison Burton. Just because you are the offspring of a fairly successful Cup driver does not mean that the genetic traits for such endeavors is passed on. Case in point: Junior was a pretty good wheelman, especially on plate tracks, but most people expected more and were disappointed. Dale Jarrett’s son and the great Ned’s grandson Jason never amounted to a hill of beans in a few seasons of Busch and disappeared. Same for Terry Labonte’s son. A few seasons in Busch and he was gone. But the almost comedic failure award of NASCAR genetics has to be Steven Wallace! Rusty built a whole racing team just for his son. Unfortunately, Steven didn’t just wreck cars each week…..he destroyed them!!! After a year or two…….RWR was bankrupt! Steven couldn’t even handle the family SUV on the highway, let alone a 800 horsepower race car.

Matty

Not sure if we’re talking about the same Jon Wood, but 20 years ago Jon Wood had such an epic meltdown in the Busch Series garage, that he never again drove another race car. This psychotic episode is still talked about, albeit quietly, even today in the NASCAR garage. Same guy?

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