Blaney, #77 Jasper Motorsports team flourishing from wide range of subtle changes in NASCAR Winston Cup Series operation.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- It is not yet the most-asked question in the NASCAR Winston Cup garage. That territory is still reserved for the surprising early-season fallibility of Roush Racing engines, Brooke's latest legal maneuvers and the on-going philosophical debate concerning the definition of "boogity".
But the steady and startling early-season surge into the top-ten in the WC standings by Dave Blaney and the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team has most full-time observers of the sport looking for an easy way out to an obvious query--"What in the world has changed with Jasper Motorsports?"
The solution about the emergence of Blaney--in his fourth full WC season--as a weekly front-runner is not as simple as some have surmised. The most visible change is at the top with new Crew Chief Robert "Bootie" Barker, now approaching only his tenth start this weekend at Bristol as a Winston Cup head coach after a meteoric two-year plus apprenticeship in the NASCAR Busch Series with Scott Wimmer.
Barker's bold decision-making at-track and in-shop has reenergized the decade-old race team and propelled the group to three top-ten finishes and a pole position in the past four weeks as well as a posture only 11 race-positions out of fourth place in the WC standings. But that's not the entire picture.
From all sides, consistent references from Blaney, Barker and team owners Doug Bawel, Mark Harrah and Mark Wallace have highlighted the efforts of a revised fabrication shop--headed by former Jasper Motorsports enployee and Hendrick Motorsports graduate Pat Marshall. The new direction dictated by all involved with chassis geometry and body concept has been a key factor in the team's move toward the front, including last weekend's glossy third-place finish at Darlington, one of the circuit's most driver-reliant tracks. But that's not the entire picture.
There's the Penske-Jasper motor program, a cooperative effort between Roger Penske and Bawel run out of a state-of-the-art facility in Concord, N.C. Many felt that--with the switch to Dodge sheet metal by the Penske South #2 and #12 teams for the 2003 season--that the #77 would flounder with the Ford "leftovers" from the year's outstanding programs from 2001-02 while Dodge development dictated much of the future of the PJE effort.
But both a PJE-powered Ford (Blaney-Rockingham) and Dodge (Newman-Atlanta) have won pole positions, have produced steady on-track performance and show ever-improving dyno numbers on both sides of the manufacturer fence. The immediate horsepower horizon looks bright for all three teams serviced by the Penske-Jasper Engine operation. But that's not the entire picture.
Despite a good effort from the team's over-the-wall pit-crew in 2002, Harrah-also the Team Manager--and the Jasper team ownership chose to challenge Pit Coach Phil Horton to improve the product and he has, revamping the group with new additions Clay Robinson and Mike Houston (front-tire changer and carrier), Aaron Pieratt (rear-tire carrier), C.G. Goldizen (jackman) and Leonard Davis (catch can) to go with returning gasman Dennis Cabe and rear-tire changer Rich Macco. The new lineup produced immediate results, winning the McDonald's/Powerade Pit Crew Challenge at Rockingham while Blaney finished 10th. But that's not the entire picture.
The improvement of the on-track effort might be a change even as subtle as that which occurred from above--in the voice and vision of the new spotters Blaney has been using for the season's first five races. Since the middle of his 2000 WC season at Bill Davis Racing, Blaney had used #93 team shock specialist Eric Slade--also a former sprint car driver like Blaney--as his spotter. Slade continued that spotter's role in 2002--Blaney's first season with the #77 Jasper Ford team--but moved this year to the shock-specialist position with the #99 Roush Racing team with driver Jeff Burton.
And while Slide's comfortable style matched Blaney's low-key personality, new spotter Chuck Joyce--a fiesty veteran 'eye-in-the-sky' with several WC programs and team co-owner Wallace--have split the duties thus far, each bringing a decidedly different "call-of-the-game" delivery in Blaney's ear. All involved with the Jasper program have noted the difference. But that's still not the entire picture.
As much as anything, the positive change for Blaney thus far in the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season may be rooted in the fact that this is the first season in his NASCAR career (dating back to an abbreviated 20-race 1998 Busch Series campaign) that the driver has had significant input in what his complimentary cast would be. As with any team sport, team chemistry is as significant a factor as any for lasting success in NASCAR.
"No question that everything is coming together from all sides of our program, and I think we saw signs of that in the last third of last season," said Blaney, who might have finished a position or two higher than his career-high 19th-place in the WC standings if not for an early exit in the season-finale at Homestead. "It's really the first time I've been able to get involved with decisions involving personnel or decisions about equipment in the six seasons I've been in NASCAR.
"When I came to Bill Davis Racing from the World of Outlaws after the 1997 season, I'd only been in a fendered car for about 6-8 races, and we were running a limited schedule with a somewhat limited budget with (sponsor) Amoco.
"Bill put together a great group (including Gil Martin, now Crew Chief for the #29 Richard Childress Racing team and Kevin Harvick), but I was totally new to this kind of racing and these kind of cars. It was his call on what we raced and who supported us over there for most of the time I was at BDR.
"When I came to Jasper Motorsports last season, (former Crew Chief) Ryan (Pemberton) had a core group of guys he'd worked with for several years who were already in place and had worked together to move the program ahead in a big way. They had a certain way they built their cars and a book of notes on how they ran and what they needed everywhere. When he moved on to the #01 team last fall, it was really the first time I haad the chance and felt I knew enough to say this is the guy (Barker) I'd like to work with and think is the best fit, and this is the way we should go to improve our cars at the track.
"(Fab Shop Foreman) Pat Marshall had been at Jasper before and came back after working at Hendrick and started working on some new ideas that have worked pretty well for me as a driver so far. Pat and the guys at the shop are putting great bodies on the cars and they've got me in the ballpark. We're just trying to stay there and not dial ourselves out. With the exception of Las Vegas, the cars have been fast off the truck and Bootie has the whole team energized and is doing a such great job.
"We've improved a little bit in so many areas but the cars are better before they leave the shop, and that's pretty much where it's at. The front-ends work better. The bodies make the front ends work better, so that's the whole game here. If you get the car to turn, you can make it go after that. He's got the cars turning better and we've always had horsepower that's as good as anybody, so the whole mix is good right now. It's hard not be excited about the direction we're going."