"The Wood Brothers are the Green Bay Packers of our sport," says Richard Petty. "They are the guys who built NASCAR into what it is today."
But the sinking economy has hit the Wood Brothers hard, forcing the team to trim its number of employees from 65 to 42 in the off-season. "We looked for 2009 sponsor money for months, and we had a very hard time finding anything," says Eddie Wood, age 56, who co-owns the team with his brother Len, 52, sister Kim Hall, 47, and father, Glen, 83. "The slump in the economy has especially hurt the small teams in the sport, because there's just no sponsor money out there right now for us."
Indeed, the number of teams in the Cup series that have enough sponsorship to run a full 36-race schedule, which costs an estimated $20 to $25 million per car, has shrunk from 43 last year to 34. After failing to secure a full-time sponsor for '09, the Wood Brothers in January signed Motorcraft to back them for nine races. Eddie Wood then persuaded 53-year-old Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup champ who'd been semiretired since 2004, to pilot his famed number 21 Ford. The team arrived in Daytona not on private jets (as several owners did) or on team-owned planes (as the Big Four organizations did) but in cars that they had driven from Charlotte.
"It's tough, man, because we don't have the help that other teams do, and I don't have any teammates out there to lean on for information," says Elliott. "But we're a bunch of old school racers, and we just try to figure things out on the fly."
Though the team boasts only three engineers—Hendrick Motorsports, by contrast, has more than 50 on its payroll—Elliott roared to the top of the speed charts in back-to-back practice sessions the day before qualifying. He then ran the fifth-fastest qualifying lap, outdoing the likes of Kenseth and Hendrick stars Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. This was a case study in how ingenuity in NASCAR can still trump resources. "I've had to hire guys who can do multiple things and do them well," Eddie Wood says. "I can't just have a guy who's only, say, a fabricator. He also needs to be a part of the pit crew or do something else that's valuable. This economy has taught us that we can't be specialized anymore. This is how we used to do it, and hopefully we can create a new model for how smaller teams can be successful."
On Sunday, Elliott, like Kenseth, deftly avoided the Big One and finished 23rd, which put him ahead of Johnson (31st) and defending 500 champ Ryan Newman (36th). When the race was called, Elliott's crew members celebrated as if they'd won, exchanging hugs and handshakes in their pit box. The team is hoping that by simply making the race, which they failed to do last year, they'll get a second look from potential sponsors. And who would be the biggest winner if the Wood Brothers were to recapture some of their past glory? NASCAR. Since 2005, television ratings are down 21%. Daytona was sold out on Sunday, but even NASCAR officials privately expect attendance figures to tumble this season because of the economy. An underdog team rising up would be a desperately needed shot of adrenaline for the sport.
"Everyone in the garage is rooting for the Wood Brothers," says Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Johnson. "They already overcame a lot just making the 500. If they can keep building, it would be quite a story."
On Sunday evening, though, the story was Kenseth. As he walked through the infield from one TV interview to the next, he had already found something new to worry about: Performing well on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. "In the big picture of the [Cup] championship, winning at Daytona doesn't really mean too much," Kenseth said. "Next week is when the real season starts. But this gets us going on the right path. Hopefully, this is just a preview of what's to come for us."