MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Wood Brothers Racing didn't get any break from the tensions of qualifying for this weekend's Nextel Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, even though the famous team's shop used to be just a few miles from the track.
Co-owner Len Wood and the rest of the team had to sweat out qualifying because of a rule that forces drivers not in the top 35 in owners points to race their way into the field. It can make for a harrowing experience for teams trying to move up from the bottom.
"Nervous probably would be a good term," Wood said Saturday.
Wood Brothers Racing showed up Friday 40th in owner's points with its Car of Tomorrow but it turns out it didn't have to worry. With veteran Ken Schrader behind the wheel, the No. 21 Ford qualified fourth, one of eight teams to race its way into the field.
During practice, "when Schrader popped up high on the (speed) charts, I had a better feeling and then, as everybody else started going out, we fell down to what would have qualified about 40th or 41st," Wood said. "He went back out for his next run and he popped it right back up. I felt better then, but I kept saying to myself, ‘You've got to do it when it's time.' He did a really good job."
Schrader said Martinsville is just like every other place is, and will continue to be, until they get in the top 35 and show up knowing they'll be able to race.
"It's just pressure every week," he said.
Schrader's qualifying laps put his Ford Fusion right outside Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet Impala in the Goody's 500, and left Wood encouraged about his CoT program.
"We're better right now than we were with the other cars," he said.
A week ago at Bristol, in the debut of the CoT, Schrader qualified 15th and finished 28th, his best finish in the four races he's run in the No. 21 this year.
Schrader slipped back to 17th fastest in Saturday's final practice, but the strong early showing boosted by the experience of a veteran racer allowed Wood to at least entertain the possibility that a 34-year team losing streak here will end today.
"There are obviously a lot of factors like not getting torn up, getting in some else's mess and not making your own mistakes," he said, "but I wouldn't rule it out."
The Woods Brothers, whose 96 victories in the premier series came mostly in the 1970s and '80s, have their team's own struggles to blame for their spot in the standings.
Drivers of the new Toyota Camrys are having to build programs from the ground up. That means they only get what they earn until they have shown they belong, and helps explain why rookie A.J. Allmendinger was high-fiving and hugging his team on pit road Friday after qualifying 40th, only the second race he's made in six tries.
"They made 14 changes to the car before qualifying and I just tried to turn a lap that I thought might be good enough to get in the show, and it worked," he gushed.
Jeremy Mayfield, who qualified for the first time in five tries this season last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, will start 14th in the race, also in a Toyota.
The stress is difficult, he said, but also character building.
"It makes you tough and those weeks that we had to go home just makes you stronger," said Mayfield, who has qualified for the 10-race Chase twice. "I think we've handled the pressure pretty well. We're not getting down. That's all we can do with it. We can't let it get to us and can't let our confidence get down."
There were some who thought Toyota would make a big splash once it joined the series, but two Toyota teams were among the six that didn't make the race, and the second-best Toyota on the starting grid today will be Dave Blaney. He's 22nd.
Jeff Gordon isn't surprised to see the newest manufacturer struggle.
"Once they get into their groove and they get some things rolling, if they are a good solid team like the teams that are up high in the points, running good and winning races, then you will see them have success as well," Gordon said.
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