Blaney Gets No Respect In Closing-Lap Run At The Front Of Frantic Daytona Finish; Shares In Widespread Frustrations Throughout Sport Over Stewart's On-Track Decorum HIGH POINT, N.C. -- As with his dominating, if incomplete performance in March...
Blaney Gets No Respect In Closing-Lap Run At The Front Of Frantic Daytona Finish; Shares In Widespread Frustrations Throughout Sport Over Stewart's On-Track Decorum
HIGH POINT, N.C. -- As with his dominating, if incomplete performance in March at Atlanta, Dave Blaney's fortunes and late-race challenge for victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona became a footnote to a firestorm of post-race controversy and the warm blanket of predictable sentiment surrounding Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s popular victory at the track where his father lost his life 139 days earlier.
But unlike his Atlanta finish—where he led 70 laps and was leaving the field before a tire problem doomed his day—Blaney was a critical element in both the outcome of the season's second Daytona event and a controversial late-race situation that may eventually cost Tony Stewart an opportunity to challenge for the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
As he had done for February's Daytona 500, Blaney posted the 14th-fastest qualifying time as eight Dodges placed in the top 18 cars for the Pepsi 400, including Sterling Marlin and Bill Davis Racing teammate Ward Burton on the front row. The qualifying effort continued an impressive string of starts at super-speedways where Blaney has started 16th or higher in all but one of ten career NASCAR races, including six top-ten WC and Busch Series starts at Daytona and Talladega.
In the second prime-time race of the season and the first of 20 straight to conclude the 2001 WC season, Blaney and the #93 Amoco/Siemens Dodge settled in mid-pack at a comfortable pace to negotiate the shifting tides of the treacherous drafting conditions under which the Winston Cup drivers must now compete at Daytona and Talladega.
After four months of anxiety and scrutiny over the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the Daytona 500, most drivers had hoped for a clean, incident-free race to help put the trauma of losing of NASCAR's most significant personalities behind them.
While the younger Earnhardt dominated the race (leading 116 laps of 160 laps), Blaney and the rest of the under-powered field made their late-race calculations on how to improve track position for the race final 50 miles. With all teams needing to stop for gas in the race's final 25 laps, Crew Chief Doug Randolph decided to bring Blaney in for a two-tire stop and gas on Lap 140, 2-4 laps earlier than many of the other lead-pack cars, to avoid the cluttered chaos on pit-road.
Randolph also suspected that as drivers and crew chiefs bunched tightly together in the pack made quick choices about when to execute their green-flag stops, the possibility for an accident as cars slowed to exit to pit road might occur. An early stop for his driver might avoid being swept up in such an incident.
As Blaney returned to track-speed down the backstretch after his Lap-140-stop along with Johnny Benson, the predicted chaos ensued all along the front-stretch, a massive crash involving 11 cars in the field around where Blaney had been running. After pit-stops by the remaining lead-pack cars under caution had taken place, Benson and Blaney led the field with only 11 laps remaining in the race.
After only one lap of green-flag racing, an oil line came loose on Jeff Gordon's damaged race-car, bringing out another four-lap caution period with Benson and Blaney still at the front. On the race's final restart on Lap 154, Benson and Blaney distanced themselves away from the field slightly while Earnhardt, Stewart, and Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip charged out of line and toward the front.
With three laps remaining, Stewart swerved left down the backstretch below the track's inside yellow line that serves as an "out-of-bounds" area on superspeedways, perhaps as a reaction to avoid Benson's car in traffic. He reentered traffic and approached the #93 Dodge on the driver's side, slamming into the door as he drove Blaney up the track. Blaney slid sideways into heavy traffic as the cars entered the Turn 3 location where the elder Earnhardt was killed. A miraculous save by Blaney prevented a race-ending melee behind the surging Earnhardt.
NASCAR officials issued the black-flag to Stewart -- one of five driver's in the race eligible to win the $1 million bonus offered by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company-- on each of the final two laps, but he did not respond and remained on the track. Earnhardt and Waltrip -- teammates at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. -- went on to a 1-2 finish ahead of Elliott Sadler, BDR teammate Burton and 2000 WC champion Bobby Labonte and Stewart. Blaney faded in the field after the on-track confrontation and was listed in 22nd, moving up one position in the final standings when a post-race decision was made to drop Stewart to 26th, the final position on the lead-lap.
"I was right on the bottom of the track where I was supposed to be and he came across the apron and smashed into me," said Blaney. "It turned the car clear sideways. I had to get completely out of the gas and catch it to keep from taking out the rest of the field. It's a wonder we all didn't go into the fence.
"It was the dumbest thing I've ever seen on his part, regardless of why he did it, and he's done some pretty ridiculous things on the track before. I've raced him longer than everybody else out here. He should know better. I don't know what he was thinking about but we sure don't need to hurt someone else out here.
"Johnny Benson and I had pitted under green (on Lap 140) and had just gotten back up to speed before the big wreck, which we had hoped to miss. That's how we got to the front/ We knew we weren't in a position to drive off from Little E and win it but stranger things have happened on these restrictor-plate tracks. The deal with Stewart killed our race and wasted a great opportunity to have something good come out of a really tough week for this team. But it killed his race, too, and maybe more than that. Maybe that will give him something to think about."
Following the decision, Stewart charged the NASCAR truck and physically confronted three regular NASCAR reporters as well as WC Series Director Gary Nelson before being restrained by Team Owner Joe Gibbs. Stewart, already on probation for a previous incident, faces further penalties and the loss of points with his demotion in the final results (65 points) as well as a possible suspension could cripple the championship hopes of his team -- third in points before the post-race decision but fourth after the penalty more than 200 points behind first-place Gordon.
For Blaney, the difference between what seemed a certain top-ten finish and the eventual outcome meant a swing of as many as six positions in the standings entering this week's inaugral race at ChicagoLand Speedway in Joliet, IL. Blaney and the #93 Amoco/Siemens team remained 28th in the WC team points standings, only 70 points behind 22nd-place Jeremy Mayfield, and 27th in the driver's standings.
As the next segment of the 2001 season unfolds, Blaney will concentrate each week on the fortunes of the nine drivers -- Mayfield, Kurt Busch, Robert Pressley, Mike Skinner, Michael Waltrip, Terry Labonte Joe Nemechek, Ricky Craven and Mike Wallace, who are bunched within ten positions and 169 points in a battle to reach the top-20 before summer's end.
Burton, with his second straight top-ten finish and his fourth overall in 2001, moved up to 18th in the WC standings, 218 points behind rookie Kevin Harvick but now the second-ranked Dodge team behind only sixth-place Sterling Marlin. Bill Elliott, who started 18th but ran by himself one-lap down and away from the pack for most of the race, fell behind Burton in the standings. Blaney is fourth among the ten Dodge drivers after 17 races in the debut season for the new Intrepid, and trails only Marlin and Burton with top-ten finishes at Rockingham, Texas and Michigan.