When he realized that his lame-duck Amoco-sponsored program at Bill Davis Racing was being replaced with a turn-key driver/sponsor/crew chief package last fall, Dave Blaney knew he had reached a crossroads in his brief NASCAR career. For a ...
When he realized that his lame-duck Amoco-sponsored program at Bill Davis Racing was being replaced with a turn-key driver/sponsor/crew chief package last fall, Dave Blaney knew he had reached a crossroads in his brief NASCAR career.
For a second-year NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver barely 100 races into his total stock-car racing experience, Blaney had just begun to feel the week-to-week comfort in fendered entries after leaving a stellar open-wheel career--primarily on dirt surfaces--prior to the 1998 season to test the difficult transition to NASCAR.
With available sponsorship dollars dwindling for NASCAR programs, Car Owner Davis has settled on one of the last remaining deals available to insure support for his second Winston Cup program, and opting to replace the just-maturing Blaney proved an agonizing Catch-22 for the fiercely loyal Davis.
For Blaney, it was a question of quickly determining a level of market-value and finding an appropriate option in what became in late fall an unforgiving game of musical Butler-built seats within the ever-shrinking pool of fully-funded, competitive NASCAR Winston Cup teams.
Much to his surprise, Blaney found that many of the key people in the WC garage had been paying attention to the intense focus he'd given to learning top-to-bottom a different racing discipline than his familiar World of Outlaws. They'd noticed the steady progress through a procession of changes in his #93 BDR team, including two crew chiefs and a brand change from Pontiac to Dodge after his first WC season.
In short, with the pool of real racers in short supply at a time in the sport when delivering to the performance-bottom-line was ever more critical to the spiraling equation involving increased sponsor-cost, Blaney fit more WC owners needs than he'd ever imagined.
"To be honest, I didn't think I'd really come far enough with the #93 team in Winston Cup to think that there'd be a whole lot of interest, and I'd almost convinced myself that--in spite of my commitment to NASCAR--I might just go back to running the sprint cars," said Blaney, the 1995 WoO champion and a four-time runner-up.
"I'm not the most political guy and I hadn't worked the garage area like some guys do, to keep my name in everybody's hat. Bill Davis gave me a great chance that most of the owners wouldn't have, then gave me all the patience and resources he could to make sure I had the time to learn these stock cars. I would have stayed there forever, if he hadn't gotten boxed in a corner on sponsorship.
"But several good teams showed interest pretty quickly, once the word got out that I was going to have to leave BDR. The #77 guys offered the right set of elements for me to try and move to the next stage of development and after kind of a shaky start, the progress we're making now through the summer shows that the situation was right for me and for them."
Although the differences in average-finish (21.3-19.5) and average-start (25-23.9) are minimal between the first nine races of 2002 and the nine races preceding the mid-point of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season at Chicago, Blaney's dramatic shift in weekly field-placement from mid-pack to top-15 can be book-marked to the season's tenth event at California Speedway, where the #77 Jasper Taurus led 27 laps late in the race and appeared in contention to deliver the first career NASCAR win for both driver and team.
In the interim 90 days, Blaney has been at the front in every race but Dover, leading four times in eight starts, and surviving a particularly cruel four-race stretch in late June and July when Blaney ran in the top-ten for over two-thirds of races at Sears Point and Daytona, only to be swallowed other driver's late accidents.
In events the following weekends at Chicago and New Hampshire, Blaney posted season-best qualifying efforts (7th and 5th, respectively) only to have early-race misfortune ( a pre-race, pit-road stall, forced to back at start in Chicago; spun into wall on Lap 2 at NH while passing for third-place) derail potential top-ten days.
The dramatic on-track jump by the #77 Jasper Ford was a clear illustration that equipment adjustments made by Crew Chief Ryan Pemberton and Team Manager/Co-Owner Mark Harrah were addressing the wildly-divergent driving styles of their previous driver (Robert Pressley) to Blaney.
"We've improved almost weekly since we first came to Daytona for testing in January, especially in the past 90 days," said Blaney. "We've improved our cars with some different ideas that better fit my driving style than maybe what the guys before me liked and that's made a big difference.
"We're learning each other better as a group and communicating better and that's a huge thing in this sport if you do it right--.or if you don't. The Penske-Jasper Engine program is obviously outstanding, and our miles-completed ratio (fifth-best at mid-season) reflects that.
"It may not be that big a factor for some guys who have been around stock cars longer than me (four full seasons), but to be one of the two guys (also Stacy Compton) to have driven three different brands (Pontiac, Dodge, Ford) in my first three Winston Cup seasons with two different teams has not been a picnic.
"The second-half of this year should be good for us because I think we'll be considerably better everywhere we've already raced this spring, and because I'll be working toward next season, when I don't have to get to know a brand new car and team for the first time in a long time. I'm looking forward to having some continuity in that area for a change."
Crew Chief Pemberton--himself looking for the first Winston Cup win of his young career--admits that he may have misjudged his incoming driver and what he needed to go fast and contend.
"We haven't gotten the finishes we probably deserved, but much of that early was our own doing--little mistakes that might have been the product of being with Dave for the first time this year. Most of what we've had have been correctable errors, which is encouraging when we look to the second half of the season. We've communicated with Dave and as a group much better since late April and we've run well at almost every type and size of track so we know we can build on our programs from short-tracks to speedways on what we learned first time around this spring.
"It did take us longer to get in sync with Dave than I thought it would. We had watched him run well at the end of last year, with a different mix of guys almost weekly and thought he'd just step in and we'd take off. We had to adapt our program around Dave and I probably didn't realize that until we were six races into the season. His style is totally different from Robert, from one extreme to the other, so the fact that the guys adapting so quickly to such a big change is good to see.
"Dave has gone through a lot of changes since he came to the Winston Cup Series, but my approach to getting this team to the track each week will eventually benefit him in that area. I like continuity with all our programs and cars. Some crew chiefs don't look at it that way, but so many things are variables every week--weather, tires, track surface and more.
"I try to control what we can within our system--make everything as predictable, and efficient and simple as I can for Dave and for our guys. It's going to help Dave in the second half of the season to know that he's not looking at yet another (brand) change and that he can just settle in and go race. He hasn't really had that yet in the Winston Cup Series."
WEBSITES: jasperengines.com daveblaney.com fordracing.com