When Len Wood, co-owner of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford Fusion, considers his team’s all-time accomplishments, he counts 98 wins in the series now known as Sprint Cup plus a victory in the sport’s All-Star race.
Although the annual event at Charlotte Motor Speedway doesn’t pay points, it pays big bucks and is a prestigious event in its own right.
The Woods got their win in the 1996 running; then known as, The Winston Select, during their first year with Michael Waltrip at the wheel of the iconic No. 21 Ford. The Woods and Waltrip had opened the season with some strong runs, and had been in position to win on more than one occasion, only to come up short.
In the All-Star race, they had to run the Winston Open, a race for those who hadn’t won a points-paying race the previous season, just to have a chance to advance to the main event.
Len Wood recalled that engine builder Danny Glad had provided a strong engine for the race; but the team, despite its record of success at Charlotte over the years, was considered a dark horse.
Waltrip finished fifth in the Open to take the final slot in the main event.
During the short break between the two races, Waltrip and the second generation members of the Wood Brothers team, Len and Eddie, talked about the adjustments they needed to make for the main event.
“Michael called a lot of the shots as far as the set-ups he wanted,” Eddie Wood said. “We put everything exactly like he wanted it.”
That meant wholesale changes of spring rubbers as well as adjustments to the track bar and other suspension components.
Waltrip and the No. 21 lined up at the rear of the field and made it halfway to the front by the first break. The inversion wasn’t an issue for him, and Waltrip continued his march forward. He made his big move in the final 10-lap segment. As Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte raced side-by-side for the lead, Waltrip drove low on the race track and motored away from the field to score his first major triumph in 12 years of competing in NASCAR’s elite division. It was the first time in the history of the All-Star race that a driver had advanced from the preliminary run to win the main event.
Waltrip said in an interview a few years back that the victory was important because it showed that he belonged on the Cup circuit and in the No. 21 Ford.
“It was big for me because the Wood Brothers entrusted me with their car,” he said. “That’s a family team, and they’d had so much success at Charlotte with David Pearson and had picked me to drive their car.”
“That was a quarter of the way into our first season together. It validated their decision in hiring me to drive their car.”
Eddie Wood said that even though the race was a non-points event, it was a major milestone for Waltrip and the Woods.
“Every big name in the sport was there,” he said. “And at the time, it was a really big story.”
Len Wood said the winner’s paycheck was further evidence of the significance of the accomplishment. “It was a little over $211,000,” he said. “That was the biggest payday we’d ever had at that point. Some people said that win didn’t count because it didn’t pay points, but it counted at the bank.”
The victory also ended a three-year losing skid for the Woods, one that dated back to 1993 and a win at Atlanta by Morgan Shepherd, one that paid $70,350.
The Woods and Waltrip raced together through the 1998 season then parted company but remain good friends today.
Len Wood said that he’s hitched rides on Waltrip’s airplane occasionally, and sometimes sends him text messages when Waltrip’s on the air broadcasting races in the Camping World Truck Series.
“We get along really well,” Wood said.
Waltrip will return to this year’s Sprint All-Star Race as owner of the cars driven by Martin Truex Jr., Mark Martin, and Clint Bowyer. The Wood Brothers are entered with Trevor Bayne driving the No.21 Good Sam/Camping World Ford Fusion.