HAMPTON, Ga. (Oct. 27, 1999) As Amoco Pontiac crew chief Gil Martin observes his crew's transition from the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2000, he's watching as much for process as for performance...
HAMPTON, Ga. (Oct. 27, 1999) As Amoco Pontiac crew chief Gil Martin observes his crew's transition from the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2000, he's watching as much for process as for performance as both his young crew and driver Dave Blaney attempt to step up to the sport's premier division.
Last weekend's third-place finish at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham was Blaney's fifth top-5 finish of the season and his third in six races since mid-August, moving the No. 93 team up another spot (to seventh) in the NASCAR Busch Series standings entering this weekend's inaugural series race at Memphis Motorsports Park. And while he's pleased with his team's late-season move up the standings, Martin is more interested in the way his young group has responded to the adversity he knows will challenge them next season.
For the third time in eight weeks, Martin's crew was forced to completely replace its primary car for a given event after crashes in practice forced the team to turn to back-up cars at both Bristol and Charlotte as well as a substantially rebuilt car for last weekend's event.
In the first event -- a one-day qualify-and-race show -- the team had only minutes to prepare its backup for qualifying, but responded well throughout the race, making positive changes in a ninth-place finish. At Charlotte, Blaney's outside-pole-winning Pontiac was damaged in final practice, but the team had his backup prepared in 40 minutes, getting valuable laps in the closing minutes of the practice. With a car ill-suited for the fast 1.5-mile layout, Blaney finished 20th.
But at Rockingham, the challenge was perhaps more daunting. On a track both fast and loose, Blaney -- a sixth-place qualifier -- let his car slip high exiting Turn 2 and slapped the outside wall hard, mandating a complete rebuild of from the rear wheels back, as well as the suspension in the car's right front, and body work down it's right side. The crew worked late into the night, repairing the car.
During the first segment of the Kmart 200, Blaney dropped 10 spots but assessed his car's race-worthiness and relayed his prognosis to Martin. Changes made in the ensuing two pit stops allowed Blaney to move back through the field and challenge the leaders. Many wondered just where Blaney had come from to challenge for his first win. Martin, however, did not.
"Dave's made great progress in learning these cars and what they want on the track for a guy who's been around them less than two years," Martin said. "He's bent a few cars lately but he's reached a new phase. Before, Dave was trying to qualify well and put in the time on the track to better learn race situations. Now, we're trying as a team to be a contender for the pole and the win each week. It's a new role.
"And our team has shown that they can react positively to the kind of situations we're going to have to overcome to be competitive when we move up to Winston Cup next season. Everybody has a back-up car that can just go around the track and make laps if you lose your primary race-car.
"Getting a second car ready on short-notice that can also be a contender to win the race is another matter. I'm really proud of our team because they want to get that first win this fall and they knew they could get that Rockingham car right so Dave would have a chance. Sometimes, what you accomplish on a weekend like that is as good as a victory because you learn a lot about what your group is made of."
Although the surface and configuration was different, Blaney has raced on the Memphis oval. As a World of Outlaws standout, Blaney burned up the high-banked dirt oval over which the existing .750-mile paved track was built. He will be joined in the large field this weekend by new teammate Mike Borkowski and the No. 02 AT&T Pontiac team. Borkowski will replace Blaney as the regular NASCAR Busch Series driver for Bill Davis Racing next season.
Blaney, meanwhile, will be teaming with Ward Burton next season.
The transition from the NASCAR Busch Series to NASCAR Winston Cup Series will not be as drastic as his jump from World of Outlaws sprint cars to stock cars. "Busch to Winston Cup is a logical step," said Blaney after a test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway in preparation for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale on Nov. 21. "The jump from sprint cars to the Busch car was a major adjustment; it's two different worlds. Sprint cars can teach you a lot of things but one thing it can't teach you is driving these kinds of cars (Winston Cup) around a fast track like this (Atlanta)."
Blaney was a standout in sprint cars, having been the runner-up in the title chase four-times in the '90s to go along with his 1995 championship. His initial NASCAR Busch series appearance was in 1998, driving for Davis in 20 races. He finished 29th in the standing. This year, he's eighth in the points with five top-5s and 12 top-10s. He's also posted four Bud Poles, including one at Atlanta.
Blaney's has run three NASCAR Winston Cup Series races this season with only mild success -- a 33rd-place finish at Michigan; a 40th-place effort at New Hampshire; and a 28th-place run at Indianapolis.
The two-day test session at Atlanta was one step in the continuing development of the team and driver. The team is using the time to not only test various set-ups for the November race, but also get more comfortable with the car. "I'm learning a lot with the track time here," Blaney said. "Every little bit helps no matter what."
Blaney returns to Atlanta looking for his first outright win, but only this time it will be at the top level of NASCAR. This past March in the Yellow Freight 300, Blaney was awarded the win following NASCAR_s post-race inspection in which Mike Skinner was disqualified. The NASCAR Busch Series victory lasted for only three days as NASCAR returned the win to Skinner after hearing the No. 19 team_s appeal.
"I wanted my first win, but you want to win them on the track," Blaney said. "But I have to be honest, I really wanted that win."
Regardless of the outcome, Blaney was happy with his performance that weekend. He turned a lap at 186.775-mph to win the Bud Pole, which was a series record at Atlanta.
"We left here in March feeling good about the race," he said. "We had the pole, led several laps and finished second. Then we were told there was possible problems with Skinner's car. It was a week of mixed emotions."
Both Blaney and the team have moved on since March with their focus now squarely shifted to the NAPA 500 and the upcoming 2000 season. However, they have not set any lofty goals and plan on a smooth transition into NASCAR's top level.
"We really haven't set down to map out our goals for next season yet, but making the races is one of the first," Blaney said. "We are on course though. I'm getting more time in the Cup car and our teams is getting cars built."