I am willing to wager that mine wasn’t the only dry eye in the Palmetto State when Ryan Blaney claimed his first-ever Monster Energy Cup Series victory at Pocono Raceway on June 11, driving the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing. In fact, I’m a little surprised our little ol’ state didn’t wash away entirely on a sea of happy tears.
Way back in the 1990s, I lived in Illinois for three years. Specifically, I lived in Chicago, home of deep-dish pizza, excellent music, Al Capone during his time as “Public Enemy Number One,” the always beleaguered Cubs, and the famous 12-foot statue of Michael Jordon in mid-flight, its granite base bearing the inscription: “The best there ever was. The best there will ever be.”
I had a blast, save for one thing. I lived in a different state in a different part of the country for three years, but all I remember about Illinois is Chicago.
Those of you who enjoy a little roulette with your road trips have probably traveled to Nevada a time or two. After a long flight, Las Vegas rises up out of the desert like the Emerald City, if the yellow brick road was crowded with casinos, the munchkins were dealing blackjack, and Dorothy wore a feathered tiara along with her ruby stilettos.
The earliest human skeletons found in the U.S. were hauled out of a cave in the Silver State, and Levi’s blue jeans were invented there, but all I really know about Nevada is Las Vegas.
Back on the eastern side of the country lies South Carolina, home of one of America’s top three beaches (Myrtle Beach) and its number-one dining destination (Charleston). As the home of stock car racing’s original superspeedway, however, as far as sports fans are concerned, Darlington is the true home of NASCAR, and that’s all they really know, or care, about South Carolina.
But I know something else about South Carolina, a state that gave birth to more than a racetrack. It is also the home state of two of NASCAR’s original superstars, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson, the “Silver Fox.”
At the ripe old age of 22, Blaney may not seem to have all that much in common with NASCAR Hall of Famers Pearson and Yarborough, but the three drivers have one very significant common denominator: its founders, the original Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard (also Hall-of-Famers), now joined by second- and third-generation family members.
That famous number 21 Ford – the Wood Brothers did it the old-fashioned way and stuck with one auto manufacturer since day one – has become famous in its own right, winning the lion’s share of WBR’s 99 wins (so far) while piloted by a string of drivers that reads like a list of NASCAR’s who’s who.
Bill Elliott. Ricky Rudd. Buddy Baker. Neil Bonnett. Morgan Shepherd. Michael Waltrip. Elliott Sadler. Bill Elliott. Trevor Bayne, who shocked the racing world when he won the 2011 Daytona 500 in the No. 21. At Pocono, Ryan Blaney did much the same thing, albeit on a smaller stage.
Talented drivers all, but by far the most famous drivers to serve as the Wood Brothers’ wheel man were Cale Yarborough and, of course, David Pearson.
Cale won a total of five races for WBR in 1967 and 1968, and boy, were they big ones – the Atlanta 500, the Firecracker 400 (twice), the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500. Not too shabby for a kid who crawled under Darlington’s fence back in 1950 so he could watch the track’s inaugural race.
During Pearson’s seven-plus years of piloting the No. 21, he celebrated in Victory Lane 43 times, giving him nearly 44 percent of the organization’s all-time 99 Cup Series wins … so far.
Blaney may be just a bright twinkle in this pantheon of stars, but he knows the significance of where he is and what he’s doing, and he doesn’t take it lightly.
“Obviously your first win is special, and to do it with the Wood Brothers and at a place where I vividly remember coming and watching my dad (Dave Blaney) race here so much is really special, as well … It’s just really neat to be able to get these guys their 99th win and hopefully we can go for 100 here,” he said after his win at Pocono.
Another neat thing was that the win was a cool little milestone, as Blaney became the 21st driver to win in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, following in the tire tracks of two of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, in one of its greatest cars, a combination that, with all due respect to Michael Jordan, will live on in the hearts of millions of race fans as “The Best There Ever Was. The Best There Ever Will Be.’