Wood Brothers come full circle after surprising victory in Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The winning combination to Sunday's 53rd Daytona 500 was simple -- oldest team; youngest driver.
The Wood Brothers have been a part of NASCAR since the beginning of the sport, when Leonard, Glen and Delano Wood formed the team in 1950. It would become one of the legendary racing teams in NASCAR history as some of the greatest drivers in the sport drove for the famed team, including David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Dan Gurney, Curtis Turner, Buddy Baker, Dale Jarrett -- the list goes on and on -- as this famed team won 97 NASCAR Cup victories entering SpeedWeeks 2011.
The 98th win, however, seemed like it would never come as the team experienced nearly a decade of winless seasons and saw its once successful team fall behind in a sport ruled by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.
This one, though, may be among their most memorable after Trevor Bayne, just one day after celebrating his 20th birthday, staged one of the biggest upsets in Daytona 500 history by winning in just his second NASCAR Sprint Cup start.
The last Sprint Cup win for the Wood Brothers was with Elliott Sadler at Bristol on March 25, 2001.
As a once-brilliant sun set on Daytona International Speedway, the Wood Brothers were back in victory lane at the Daytona 500 for the fifth time. It began in 1963 with Tiny Lund. Other wins followed with Cale Yarborough (1968), Foyt (1972) and Pearson (1976).
Add Bayne to that group.
"That's a cool list," Bayne said. "It's incredible to be part of this group. Their last Daytona 500 win was in 1976 -- 13 years before I was born. That's an incredible list. We don't expect to win them all, but we know we can now."
While Bayne is the "Next Big Thing in NASCAR", he restored pride back to one of the most storied teams in NASCAR history.
"This is one of the greatest wins we have ever had," said 76-year-old Leonard Wood, who, along with Glen, turned the reigns of the race team over to the younger generation of Len and Eddie Wood -- beginning gradually in the 1990s. In fact, brothers Len and Eddie had been groomed to take over the family team since they were children. That was before another kid took the wheel and turned in a glorious Sunday drive in the Daytona 500.
"I have no doubts about this kid now," Leonard Wood said. "What an unbelievable day for him and for us."
The Wood Brothers Racing Team was formed in 1950 by a group of brothers from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. The Brothers formed a race team and Curtis Turner, a local sawmill operator from Floyd, Va., inspired them to go racing. Part of the race shop was a tree in the backyard.
"The truth to that is when they started, our grandfather, my dad, Glen, and Leonard went and bought a 1940 Ford and they came to the home place in Stuart, Virginia, and told the grandfather they were going to race," Eddie Wood said. "He said, 'Don't unload that car here.' They found an old Beach tree, it was 150 years old, threw a chain over it and that's how they pulled out the first engine under that tree."
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, NASCAR's big rivalry was between Petty Enterprises and the Wood Brothers. Richard Petty's greatest rival was Pearson in the Purolator Ford. Petty would win 200 races and Pearson 105 and remain the top-two winners in NASCAR history.
Fast forward to 2008 and the Wood Brothers were loading up their race car after failing to make the Daytona 500 starting field. It was the low point of a once glorious race team.
"Our family had been coming down here since the 1950s and had never missed one until we missed it," Eddie Wood said. "I think that is the lowest point for me was that day and we came back to the race track and hung out because we had a lot of guests coming.
"It's almost like when you miss a race, especially the Daytona 500, it's like somebody died. Until you go through it, you can't put it into words, but when you walk through the garage and you see people you see every week, they are afraid to look at you. It's like you don't know what to say. You walk up to them and say, `Hey, we missed the race, OK.' But it's tearing you up inside."
Eddie and Len didn't give up. They simply worked a little harder and formed partnerships with other race teams.
One thing about NASCAR: loyalty is important. The Woods had a very loyal supporter at the Ford Motor Company. They never gave up and began to build their team back to a competitive level, although unable to contend with the Hendricks and Gibbs teams on a regular basis.
"We're just a small part of it and it's bringing that red and white car with a gold number that Pearson drove, that just seemed like it put things back to normal," Eddie Wood said. "I told Richard Petty earlier in the week that he needed to paint his car back to blue with orange strips at the top and the world would be correct and I believe that. I believe our car is supposed to be red and white with a gold number. His is supposed to be Petty blue with an orange strip across the top of it with a big, white 43.
"Whenever that happens, I'll be happy."
It was a return to glory for the Wood Brothers. And while they were in victory lane celebrating, an old rival, Richard Petty, came in to congratulate them.
"We went so far down and to come back, Edsel Ford was here for Ford today, and that is Henry Ford's grandson," said Eddie. "That part of it says it all. Everything that happened today, outside of the race, people supporting us."
David Pearson, the Wood Brothers most successful driver, will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in May. He was at Sunday's race and witnessed the Wood Brothers' return to prominence.
In 1976, Pearson took the same team to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500. Bayne's famed No. 21 carried decals honoring Pearson for his Hall of Fame Induction. Pearson left the track shortly after the race and started to drive home to South Carolina.
"Yeah, I was listening to it on the radio in the car," Pearson said. "That's good. I'm proud of them. I figured they had a chance after seeing that boy race in the 150s [Gatorade Duel]. I talked to him [Bayne] this morning. I told him to keep his head straight and not to do anything crazy. I told him to stay relaxed. That's the thing; stay relaxed. I knew he would because he was relaxed in the qualifier. I'm proud of him. I don't understand what has taken them so long to return to Victory Lane. The car has always been capable."
"Len and I grew up in the Pearson era," Eddie Wood said. "We were Leonard's little helpers. We didn't do a lot but we were there and when it started downhill after all that we begin to think that you can never get back, but you keep trying.
"Just the fact we wanted one more trophy, one more trophy.
"You just can't quit and we never did quit. We just kept trying."
By never quitting, the Wood Brothers added another historical moment to the Daytona 500 as the "Oldest Team celebrated with NASCAR's Youngest Driver."