HIGH POINT, NC -- After two years of stock car apprenticeship in the NASCAR Busch Series, Dave Blaney will join one of the largest first-year classes of aspiring Winston Cup regulars in the quest for the 2000 Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year award. One of the greatest World of Outlaws (WoO) performers of the past decade, Blaney will attempt to permanently distance himself in 2000 from former sprint-car rivals such as Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell, who failed to graduate to NASCAR's premier level despite a combined 18 WoO championships on their racing resumes.
To aspire to watermarks that would reflect a "typical rookie season" would not necessarily accomplish what both Blaney and car owner Bill Davis hope for Amoco Ultimate Team 93. With the now en-vogue rush to embrace open-wheel drivers into NASCAR, Davis appears once again ahead of the curve, especially given the "atypical" 1999 rookie season success of Tony Stewart. But any comparison to Stewart's banner year for a 2000 rookie-to-be, Blaney included, would be unjust.
An overview of the 21 'other' top rookies over the past decade (including the 1990-99 Rookies-of-the-Year) indicates, however, that to target the mean rookie averages as seasonal goals for Blaney would be to accept underachievement as the first-year norm against NASCAR's best talent.
Excluding Stewart, the average finish in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings for the best 21 rookies of the last ten seasons is 26.52 (84 points per race), only three top-ten finishes (and 0 top-fives) in 34 starts and a miles-finished percentage of 86%. While all but seven of the targeted WC rookies made every race in their first season and all but three registered at least one top-ten finish, the underproduction of the total group is overwhelmingly obvious.
Only eight drivers finished more than 90% of their laps. Only six led more than 100 miles and only three rookies produced more than four top-ten finishes, including Johnny Benson, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte, the latter being the only rookies except Stewart to finish in the top-20 in points since 1990. In fact, the total number of top-five finishes (14 in 627 starts including seven by Gordon) is only two less than Stewart's total for the 1999 season alone. Stewart's 1,077 miles-led were only 350 miles less than the total miles-led by all 21 top rookies of the '90's, including Gordon.
"From the beginning, we've measured Dave's progress on our own terms because he had so much to learn in such a short time," said Davis, whose first NASCAR Winston Cup season (with rookie driver Labonte) now appears far better (19th in points, six top-tens, pole position at Richmond) than he believed at the time. "Both Bobby and I were Winston Cup rookies in 1999. Jeff Gordon (14th in points) had a solid year with Hendrick but we expected more from our group. Looking back now -- even in light of Tony's great year -- it was a pretty good start for both the driver and the team.
"For Dave's rookie season, the situation he has to work with is so much different than it was in my first year as a Winston Cup owner with Bobby. We've got a top-ten team in place (ninth-place #22 Caterpillar-Polaris team and driver Ward Burton) for (#93 Crew Chief) Gil Martin and Dave to lean on and a system for the two teams that will make things as consistent for them as we can.
"It will be a great rookie race in 2000 and to win the Raybestos award will be a big deal for whoever wins it with the caliber drivers coming into the series. But our goals for Dave and the Amoco team will be to integrate them first as a good partner week-to-week for Ward, (Crew Chief) Tommy Baldwin and the #22 team. That will make both teams stronger. I think Dave's come far enough as a stock car driver that he and the Amoco team may surprise a few people in 2000."
In 1999, Stewart set lofty rookie goals to match for any future first-year WC driver -- be it Blaney, two-time defending NASCAR Busch Series champion Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series graduates Mike Bliss and Stacy Compton or CART star Scott Pruett. But also last season, a broad performance gap existed between the top-10 points finishers and the rest of the top-35. The per-race-averages of champion Dale Jarrett (155) and tenth-place Mike Skinner (118) were separated by 37 points. The next 25 positions -- between Jeremy Mayfield (11th) and Brett Bodine (35th) were separated by virtually the same points split.
Four drivers in the top-15 registered one top-five finish or less in 1999, including none by 14th-place Steve Park and 15th-place Kenny Schrader. Seven of the top-20 drivers in the final NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings finished out of the top-10 in four of every five starts. With such statistics indicating considerable mid-pack ground to be made for an overachieving first-year team.
The key variable for Crew Chief Martin, driver Blaney and the Amoco Ultimate Team 93 -- winless in 51 starts with Blaney but sixth in the 1999 BGN team point standings -- centers on establishing realistic and attainable performance goals for 2000 as car owner Davis becomes the 11th multi-team NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner.
"Based on what we've seen of Dave's personality and performance, I'd say he has a chance to surprise a lot of people who are considering the rookie race for 2000 to be a two-horse show," said Martin, whose 79 career starts as a Winston Cup crew chief include 74 as owner/crew chief of the #81 FilMar Racing entries and five with Blaney in 1999. (For the final two at Miami and Atlanta, Blaney ran consistently in the top-15 after qualifying in the top-ten--fourth & seventh--for both races to equal or better the 1999 top-ten qualifying totals for 14 WC regulars).
"In 51 Busch Series races, Dave won five poles -- all in track-record time -- and started in the top-ten in almost two-thirds of his races. We know he can qualify. He's going to be one of those drivers who may be a bit slower in his first 5-10 laps on new tires but will be better than most of the field in the final third of a tire segment because -- despite his sideways dirt-track background -- he's been great on learning tire conservation. And he's going to finish a lot of races because that's his mentality and that's been the history over the past two seasons with the motors and equipment here at Bill Davis Racing.
"And he, Dale Jr. and Matt may have an edge on the other three main rookies for 2000 because they'll all have solid partner teams and veteran drivers to use as their sounding boards. Whatever he does in 2000, Dave Blaney has already proven a lot of people wrong by basically unlearning 15 years worth of championship-level driving skills (in sprint cars) in less than two seasons worth of stock car races and becoming a weekly contender for poles and wins. He's shown he got a pretty large capacity for learning. I don't think he's through yet."