Blaney knows that superspeedway respect involves more than fast equipment; hopes his ...
Blaney knows that superspeedway respect involves more than fast equipment; hopes his #77 Jasper Ford Team builds on last summer's Daytona promise as Speedweeks 2003 begins next week.
DAYTONA BEACH, FL -- It's long been one of NASCAR's dirty little secrets. With the current avalanche of engineers into a sport whose successes were once only dictated by tape measures and down-home hubris, the technical overload has recently reached an all-time intolerance.
And while most NASCAR crew chiefs will insist that the chances of his car shining in superspeedway races has an indelible correlation to the amount of wind-tunnel time invested in that entry, almost no one inside the sport will deny that another factor is just as significant--an element that all the technical mumbo-jumbo will never control.
Call it the "Harry Gant" factor. You'd have to look long and hard to find anyone around stock-car racing who has a bad thing to say about Gant, who retired in 1994 with 18 career WC wins and a permanent resume as one of the most likeable drivers in recent memory.
It's that universally-admired personality of Gant that provides a template to superspeedway success perhaps as vital than any of those in NASCAR's "Room of Doom" inspection area at Daytona International Speedway.
Any driver will tell you it's true. In the age of restrictor-plate racing, you can have the fastest car, but without partners and cooperation once the tightly wound dance of the draft begins on superspeedways, you're just another car in the show.
As unscientific as it seems, much of a driver's fortune at Daytona and Talladega may depend on whether the guy adjacent to him in the draft would go fishing with him or trusts him enough to ride three feet behind him for three hours at almost 200 miles-per-hour--with no trepidation. Lip-service will be given to this teammate thing--both organizational and manufacturer--but if you're not to be trusted, you're heading to the back of the field.
To be sure, anyone will lock onto a fast car for a while to improve their fortunes. But guys like the Labonte Brothers, whose calm on- and off-track demeanor is well-documented, have long been favorite dance-partners in the draft among the Winston Cup competitors. And their superspeedway records over the past decade reflect consistent successes for both, especially at Talladega where their collective total of 14 top-ten finishes over the last seven seasons is unmatched by any other active duo of WC drivers.
Or even more telling is the fact that over the past nine seasons (18 races), no active driver has posted more top-ten finishes at Daytona International Speedway than Ken Schrader (12). Winless for more than a decade of Winston Cup starts, Schrader has been with several organizations during the time-frame and has also moved into the latter stages of his steady career. Only one thing has remained consistent--Schrader is one of the most well-liked guys in the WC garage. Like the Labontes, Schrader has most often had competitive entries at Daytona and Talladega, but he's almost never had a willing partner to work with. Sometimes a fast car is not enough.
Dave Blaney--the 1995 World of Outlaws champion who made the cold transition to stock cars in 1998 after a stellar 15-year career in sprinters--knows this phenomenon all too well.
When his NASCAR schooling began in Bill Davis' Busch Series cars, Blaney had driven stock cars competitively only seven times anywhere. Competitors who knew the Hartford, Ohio native said he was one of the nicest guys in racing, but they also knew he had a long on-track learning-curve in stock cars, not the most comforting knowledge when it came time to drafting three-wide, 14-rows-deep at Talladega.
Time and again, Blaney qualified well at superspeedways in BDR entries (top-ten in all four Busch Series starts in 1998-99; fourth for his second WC start at Daytona in July, 2000), but his combination of inexperience with the swirling currents of the draft and his competitors' persistence in shuffling his car out of the front pack of cars in every race left Blaney consistently frustrated at the end of the four races at Daytona and Talladega.
Something changed last summer. In the Pepsi 400 at Daytona last July, Blaney and his #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team each enjoyed arguably their best career superspeedway race, until a late-race collision with a spinning Ryan Newman sidelined Blaney with only 10 miles to go, leaving him 28th in the final running order.
After starting 30th, Blaney--in his 11th WC superspeedway start--worked his way quickly through the field and into the top-ten by Lap 40, where he remained for the next 263 miles of the 400-mile race, racing as high as fourth in the lead-draft. Blaney ran in a tight top-five pack with eventual race-winner Michael Waltrip, defending race champion Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Sterling Marlin and Dale Jarrett--all recent restrictor-plate kings--as he contended for his first career NASCAR victory.
"It's just a shame that we couldn't close the deal at Daytona last July because we were as good as anyone--with maybe the exception of the Michael Waltrip--for most of the race," said a reflective Blaney as he prepared for Speedweeks 2003.
"We hadn't put an unusual amount of time into preparing the car for that race, but it raced like a dream, and I never had a problem working with anyone at the front. It was nice to be able to be competitive from flag-to-flag in a superspeedway event, and have a shot at the end. We had a good January test in Daytona and we'll soon see what the new year and the new body locations bring for the kind of racing we can expect."
Much of how the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford reacts and runs during Speedweeks will also depend on the continued potency of the Penske-Jasper Engines for Jasper Motorsports--now the only Ford client for PJE with the switch of the Penske South teams to Dodge for 2003--as well as the immediate impact of new Crew Chief Robert "Bootie" Barker, who joined the team last fall after an outstanding stint in a similar role for Busch Series standout Scott Wimmer at Bill Davis Racing.
Barker, a former chassis/shock specialist for the #24 Hendrick Motorsports team for four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon (1999-2000) and for the #22 Bill Davis Racing team and driver Ward Burton (1998-99), rejoined BDR in fall, 2000 as crew chief for Wimmer, then a recent graduate of the American Speed Association (ASA). He flourished in his first managerial role, guiding Wimmer to four NASCAR Busch Series victories in the final eight races of 2002 and finishes of 11th and third, respectively, in the NASCAR Busch Series standings (2001-02).
The 2003 Daytona 500 will also be Barker's fifth start as a Winston Cup crew chief. In addition to his full-time Busch Series duties in 2002, Barker also directed a limited NASCAR Winston Cup program at BDR for Wimmer, including starts at Bristol and Phoenix.
In his first career WC start, Barker guided Wimmer to a 22nd-place finish, leading nine laps in an unexpected debut at Atlanta (11/00) when his scheduled ARCA qualifying was rained out and Car Owner Davis opted for an attempt to make the WC field.
The Daytona 500 will also be Barker's sixth NASCAR start with Blaney, who finished third at both Dover and Charlotte in fall, 2000 in BDR Busch Series entries (four races total) as well as Blaney's final Winston Cup race in the #93 Bill Davis Racing Dodge in 2001 at Atlanta (qualified a career-best third, led 16 laps before engine failure) with Barker at the helm.
"When we knew (former crew chief) Ryan (Pemberton) would not be with us this season, the owners and I talked and Bootie was immediately on the top of my list of people to be our new crew chief," said Blaney.
"They didn't know much about him at that point, but I did from working with him during our time together at Bill Davis Racing, so they spent a month or longer just watching and listening to him on the radio at the Busch races. Once they finally met him face to face, they were very impressed and it was a no-brainer. He's done nothing since he joined the team that has made any one of us think we didn't make the best choice possible.
"I think Bootie's strong points are in the suspension side of things - the front suspension mostly. That's where a lot of it is at these days and most tracks--even superspeedways. The aero stuff is becoming so tight from make to make and car to car because the templates have everything narrowed down. From the worst car to the best car on the track there's not much difference, so it's coming down to suspension stuff. The tires are not much of a variable anymore. They go and go and go, so you have to get that thing handling right and at the right attitude and I feel that's his strong point and that's what's going to take us forward.
"You have to have a car that will go through the wind, for sure, to be successful in any superspeedway race, and we've made some gains there. But so much of how you finish at Daytona and Talladega is out of your hands. Our finish here last July is a good example, where a car spun right in front of me at a strange place in the track with less than 10 miles to go after we were a contender all day.
"No question that you have to have all your aero elements in place to be in position to finish up front at a restrictor-plate race. But you have to have luck. And you have to have the people to work with during the closing stages of the race or you'll just be watching from a distance when the checkered flag falls, no matter how fast you were at the halfway point."