For the past two months, DAVE BLANEY has offered a definitive answer every time he was asked who he thought would emerge from the pack to become the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion--TONY STEWART. BLANEY--driver of the ...
For the past two months, DAVE BLANEY has offered a definitive answer every time he was asked who he thought would emerge from the pack to become the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion--TONY STEWART.
BLANEY--driver of the #77 Jasper & Transmissions Ford--has never wavered in his strong opinion that his friend of almost a decade--who like BLANEY a graduate to NASCAR from the open-wheel ranks--would be positioned where he is entering this weekend's Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, despite a sometimes tumultuous season that has included three wins, a series-leading 15 top-five finishes and also several off-track concerns and the most DNF's by his #20 Home Depot team (6) of any potential WC champion in more than two decades.
Should Stewart hold onto his 112-point lead over Mark Martin with two races remaining and win his first WC title, his championship would represent the fifth in the past eight years won by drivers who had no NASCAR experience prior to entering stock-car competition.
As a former World of Outlaws champion (1995) and WoO Series standout through the 1990's, BLANEY developed his friendship with Stewart as he progressed through a steady sequence of successes in USAC competition, including his Midget Series championship (1994) and his unique accomplishment as the first to win the Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown Series in the same season (1996), the latter division in which BLANEY became the youngest-ever champion (1984)
In a series of non-NASCAR events in which he has competed with Stewart over the past three seasons (including a special-event race in mid-August at his family-owned Sharon (OH) Speedway), BLANEY has become familiar with a very different personality in Stewart than the much-publicized persona which surfaced after incidents over the past two seasons with selected media members.
Uniquely qualified to discuss his friend's growing chances as a possible first-time champion as well as his projection as the sport's most visible standard-bearer in 2003, BLANEY comments on Stewart's position atop the Winston Cup point standings as both return to Phoenix International Raceway, where each enjoyed career-highlight moments as open-wheel competitors before committing to NASCAR as their respective career-paths.
--BLANEY ON HIS STRONG OPINION OF STEWART AS THE WINSTON CUP TITLE FAVORITE--..
"The teams that were all in the running with a six weeks to go were all there for good reason, but I believed Tony's team was the best top-to-bottom of any of that group and would end up in front down the stretch. Historically, his team has been really strong over the final third of the season, including Phoenix where he won in 1999 and Homestead where he won in both 1999 and 2000.
"Joe Gibbs' organization won the title just two years ago with Bobby (Labonte) and the owner knows what kind of commitment it takes from the team to win championships and they seemed to come into this season--despite all the distractions--with that goal in mind from the start. It will be pretty amazing if Tony can win the championship and come back from three DNF's in his first nine races, including last-place in the Daytona 500. That's a pretty good comeback."
--BLANEY'S FEELINGS ON STEWART AS A POTENTIAL CHAMPION--..
"If he does win it, I think he'll be a great champion, better than a lot of people may think. I believe you'll see some of the frustration we've seem from time to time with him disappear, and I think he'll have a good feeling for what it will mean to be the person in the sport that people will look to as the defending champion. When the championship race started to get down to the stretch-run, I believed the fact that Tony has a real level head in the car and that he might have been a little hungrier than the others would play a big part in how it all came out.
"I know Mark (Martin) has raced for years without winning one--and he certainly should have as great a career as he's had--but I just had a sense that his team had all the pieces in place to be there at the end. I've raced against Tony more in the past couple of years than I ever did in open-wheel cars, bbut you didn't have to look hard and see that he could drive and win in any kind of car he ever raced.
"Because he's won championships in all the USAC divisions, won races in IRL, and won in NASCAR, Tony's going to be the kind of champion that will popular with a wide range of race fans from a lot of different disciplines. I can sure appreciate that, and I hope that's where we continue to go as a sport."
* DAVE BLANEY and the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team enter the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway ranked 19th in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series owner standings, 112 points behind the #30 Richard Childress Racing Team (Jeff Green) in 18th; in the 2001 race at PIR, BLANEY started 20th (27.729 secs.) and finished 28th, the last car on the lead-lap behind winner Jeff Burton; BLANEY has a best-start of 13th (11/00-27.073 secs.) in two career starts at PIR and a best-finish of eighth (11/00); the #77 Jasper team qualified in the top-five for each of the last two races at PIR (2001-fifth, Robert Pressley-27.522 secs.--finished 42nd; 2000-third, Pressley-27.011 secs.) and has a best finish of 15th (Ted Musgrave-11/93).
* After 34 races in the 2002 Winston Cup season, BLANEY RANKS SECOND IN LAPS-COMPLETED (9,974 of 9,723--98.59%), behind Rusty Wallace (98.97%), another Penske-Jasper Engines entry; BLANEY ALSO RANKS SECOND IN MILES-COMPLETED (13,181.698 of 13,359.308--98.67%), trailing only Jimmie Johnson (98.85%--.by 23.533 miles); Wallace ranks fourth in miles-completed behind Johnson, BLANEY and Mark Martin.
* BLANEY's season-best qualifying effort is third (Richmond 2), matching his WC career-best at Atlanta (11/01); his ninth-place finish at Richmond in September matched his season-best at California; his career-best WC finish is sixth (Texas, Michigan 2, Miami-- 2001); BLANEY got a lap-down early (after starting 30th) last weekend at Rockingham, but stretched his gas-mileage late in the race and finished 17th, one-lap down to first-time race-winner Johnny Benson.
* BILL "STUMP" LEWIS--driver of the #77 Jasper Ford transporter--won the NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship for transporter drivers (10/26) at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the International Truck Challenge, beating 21 other competitors for both the event and seasonal title; LEWIS received a trophies from event-sponsor International for both victories, as well as a total of $26,000 in prize money; Tim Beaver (#45) and Tracy Lumpkin (#9) trailed LEWIS for the overall 2002 championship.
* #77 Jasper team member JEFF FULTZ won the NASCAR All-Pro Series championship (10/19) with a dominating performance in the season-finale at Memphis; FULTZ won three times in All-Pro competition in 2002 (Nashville, Myrtle Beach, Memphis) and also won the ARCA race in May at Charlotte; a Cincinnati, OH. native, FULTZ--a full-time fabricator in the Jasper shop--has 183 overall career wins and eight series championships, including his 2002 All-Pro title.
* FULTZ joined #77 transporter driver LEWIS as the third 2002 series champion with connections to the Jasper Motorsports Team; BORIS SAID, who runs a limited WC schedule in the #67 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford, won the 2002 Trans-Am Series championship in October at Road Atlanta; with his race-win in the season-finale (10/26) at Virginia International Raceway--his eighth in 12 starts and fifth straight--SAID registered the 100th Trans-Am win for Ford and joined Tommy Kendall (11 wins) and the late Mark Donohue (10) as the only Trans-Am drivers to win at least eight races in a single-season in Trans-Am history.
* Ryan Newman leads the three Penske-Jasper Engines entries in the 2002 Winston Cup driver standings in fourth-place (4,324 points--14 top-fives and a series-best 21 top-tens), 225 points behind leader Tony Stewart; Rusty Wallace (4,283 points--6 top-fives, 16 top-tens) ranks sixth, 266 points out of first; BLANEY and the #77 Jasper team rank 19th in the WC owners points (3,485 points); BLANEY ranked 23rd entering the 35th race of the 2001 season (Atlanta) in the #93 BDR Dodge.