Atlanta: Dave Blaney preview

Blaney returns to site of most memorable NASCAR moments. MOORESVILLE, NC -- Until he wins his first NASCAR race, Dave Blaney will probably always be reminded--from others and from within--about the unfulfilled chances that NASCAR events at...

Blaney returns to site of most memorable NASCAR moments.

MOORESVILLE, NC -- Until he wins his first NASCAR race, Dave Blaney will probably always be reminded--from others and from within--about the unfulfilled chances that NASCAR events at Atlanta Motor Speedway represent to the former sprint-car champion.

When his #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team unloads on Friday morning for the fourth race of the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, most of the members his current team will not have a direct memory of two indelible disappointments their driver experienced before joining the program prior in 2002.

In both the spring races of 1999 (Busch) and 2001 (WC), Blaney had the proverbial "car-to-beat" in events that may have thus far defined his stock-car career, each ending in bizarre but similarly empty conclusions.

In the Yellow Freight 300 Busch Series race at AMS in March, 1999, Blaney did everything but win the race. And then he did win the race. Somewhere in the darkness on I-85 north of Atlanta following the Saturday afternoon event, the phone rang in the motorhome Blaney was driving back to North Carolina following the race.

Then-crew chief Gil Martin, now in charge of the #29 Richard Childress Racing program for Kevin Harvick, was calling from the track, more than five hours after he and Blaney had left AMS following the mandatory post-race inspection of top-finishing cars, including their second-place Amoco Ultimate 93 Pontiac.

"You'll never believe it," Martin began. And Blaney would not. After visiting victory lane 192 times in a stellar 15-year sprint-car career, Blaney apparently was going to be declared the winner of his first NASCAR race in only his 24th Busch start.

A post-race inspection of race-winner Mike Skinner's car had revealed an unapproved part. Although the first official decision would not come until 24 hours later, Blaney's best career finish to-date had just taken on added luster.

Neverthless, in the quiet of his motorhome somewhere in rural South Carolina, Blaney considered holding his first NASCAR victory celebration. Alone.

In a final ironic twist to the entire affair, Mike Skinner's team owner Dennis Ridling appealed the decision to strip his team of the victory to a NASCAR committee, and--in a rare reversal of form--the sanctioning body ruled that the original outcome should stand. Blaney had lost, then won, then lost, all in a period of 96 hours.

Neverthless, Blaney had experienced a near-perfect race weekend in only his second stock car season, winning his second career pole position in track-record time and practicing throughout the weekend like the clearly-defined driver-to-beat.

Blaney led 52 of the first 73 laps in the Yellow Freight 300 and raced among the leaders throughout the event until a huge crash jumbled the field with the 60 laps to go, dropping Blaney to eighth. After a long caution period, Blaney was delayed for several laps behind slower cars, then charged back to the front, coming up two seconds short of apparent race-winner Skinner in a dramatic stretch run.

At the end of the race, an emotional Blaney told Martin and his Amoco crew that they had given him "a perfect car" and that he finally felt "like a stock car driver" after a decidedly difficult start to his NASCAR experience in 1998 that included DNFs in six of his first seven starts.

Exactly one year before, Blaney had faced going home from the Busch race at AMS as one of the newcomers without the provisional points to qualify for the field after qualifying was rained out. When the race also had to be rescheduled for the fall race weekend at Atlanta, Blaney received a reprieve and had by then gained the on-track experience he needed to be competitive, qualifying ninth and finishing 14th.

"No matter what series you are racing in, when you get a car that runs that well from the start of the weekend to the finish of the race, you should take it to victory lane so I was disappointed with second-place," recalled Blaney. "At the time, I was more disappointed for Gil and that young team and for (car owners) Bill and Gail Davis because we were all just getting started together and I knew they had given me a winning car.

"I even remember where I gave up the win. On the last restart, I was in the line of lead-lap cars where I should have been but most of the cars ahead of me were on older tires or had been slower all day. Both Mark Martin and Mike McLaughlin got by me when I did that and the time it took for me to pass them back was all it took to let Skinner get away. I didn't have enough laps to run him back down. It was inexperience and I knew right when it happened it was going to cost us. But it was the best overall weekend I'd had up to that point, even before all the post-race stuff happened."

Exactly two years later, Blaney would again endure the ultimate disappointment at AMS, this time in the opening stages of his second WC season when an error during a hasty pit stop let a probable first NASCAR victory for Blaney roll away when the tire came loose on the AMS backstretch.

Justifiably overshadowed by the heart-wrenching, heart-stopping photo-finish victory by then-Winston Cup novice Kevin Harvick, a startling performance by Blaney in the Cracker Barrel 500 at AMS was relegated to footnote status for all but those within the Bill Davis Racing organization that were expecting a break-out effort by the former sprint-car star in his fourth NASCAR season.

After qualifying seventh, Blaney led 70 laps in the Amoco Ultimate Team 93 Dodge through the race's middle stages and enjoyed an eight-second advantage over his nearest challenger before experiencing a vibration after a pit-stop just past the two-thirds mark in the 325-lap race. After a green-flag stop, Blaney felt the vibration and lost a left-rear wheel just as a caution flag fell 100 laps from the finish. Following repairs, he limped home 34th while Harvick edged Jeff Gordon by inches in one of the most emotional finishes in NASCAR history, taking the RCR team of the late Dale Earnhardt to Victory Lane less than a month after his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

While a post-race review revealed that a lug nut had been left loose on Blaney's green-flag stop, the grim reality remains that seldom do drivers on the NASCAR Winston Cup level--especially at Blaney's early stock-car stage--have a car so dominant past the middle stages of any race. And as one owner said following the AMS race, "when you do, you need to close the deal".

"The guys kept getting the car better and better on every run and I'm sure we would have had something for them at the end, had we gotten there," said Blaney. "It's something we'll never know. On the last run before the problem showed up, we led the whole green-flag run and it was flying. It stayed really good at the end of that run so I knew we were going in the right direction with the car.

"You get something that good, and it's a shame you can't race for it at the end. At that point, we had been making good progress with our program in the second WC season and we expected to go to Atlanta and run good. Did we think we'd have the car to beat with 120 laps to go, Probably not, but we did and didn't capitalize on it. You can't get those days back, but a lot of people still remember that near-miss, for some reason."

-jm-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Mike Skinner , Kevin Harvick , Mike McLaughlin , Dave Blaney