HIGH POINT, NC -- Shifting his focus from the intense apprehension of all drivers over last weekend's Talladega Superspeedway race to his broad anticipation of the NAPA 500 at California Speedway, Dave Blaney believes his ...
HIGH POINT, NC -- Shifting his focus from the intense apprehension of all drivers over last weekend's Talladega Superspeedway race to his broad anticipation of the NAPA 500 at California Speedway, Dave Blaney believes his #93 Amoco team will begin a substantial move in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings this weekend. His optimism is based not in the usual "we-can-win-every-week" propaganda that regularly pours from the industry's image-spin machines.
For the California race, Crew Chief Doug Randolph decided to prepare the same speedway car in which Blaney dominated the middle stages of the Atlanta race in March, then almost completed a rare "last-to-first" charge through the field at Texas before being bumped back to sixth in the final three laps, still a best-finish for Blaney in his brief NASCAR career. The Amoco team also just completed a successful two-day tire test at Michigan Speedway's similar two-mile configuration, lending further optimism for continued momentum for the second-year driver and team at Bill Davis Racing.
"We've probably made more progress with our speedway program than any other area and we've got good cars and a great motor combination for tracks like California and Charlotte,""said Blaney, currently 27th in points but only 129 points behind defending WC champion Bobby Labonte in 14th. "Most drivers want to say that they're going to win every race every weekend and I'm not sure we're ready to win anywhere yet. But, I can say I'll be disappointed if we don't come away from the next three points races (California, Richmond, Charlotte) with a pretty good jump in the points.
"We've made giant strides since last Labor Day and where we are in the points right now probably doesn't show how far we've come this year. I'm still learning every week. And I've still got a lot to learn. The good news for me is I can't see a ceiling yet for where the progress will stop. It's the same for our team. We're just all working to get better every week and if we can get to the end of the year and be everyone's choice as the most improved team in the Winston Cup garage, that might be a good goal for us to keep working toward."
Better qualifying efforts have led to improved results for Blaney and the #93 Amoco/Siemens Dodge, with top-20 starts in nine of the past 12 races leading to top-20 finishes in half of those starts, including last weekend's 17th-place finish at Talladega, Blaney's best overall superspeedway result and top-ten finishes at Phoenix, Miami, Rockingham and Texas since last Halloween.
On a weekend filled with almost universal dread, Blaney and his Winston Cup peers escaped the season's second restrictor-plate race at Talladega without incident in a caution-free race won by Bobby Hamilton. After qualifying 16th and running as high as third, Blaney appeared in good position for a top-ten finish with ten laps remaining, perched in a mid-track line of cars (in 14th) between eventual winner Hamilton and Bobby Labonte, who finished fifth. But the lap-down car of fellow Dodge driver Casey Atwood fell in line in front of Blaney as Hamilton and Labonte broke to the bottom of the track while the #93 Amoco/Siemens entry was stalled on the outside behind rookie Atwood.
After 60 days of continuous speculation and debate following the death of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the Daytona 500, most crews and drivers came to Talladega with a somber perspective about running the 188-lap event, in which cars are tightly bunched together in a three-wide pack 2-3 feet apart for over three hours.
As he crossed the finish line, current Winston Cup points leader Dale Jarrett radioed Crew Chief Todd Parrott that the experience was " as afraid as I've ever been in a race car." Three-time WC champion Jeff Gordon left the race track, refusing to comment. Dodge driver Sterling Marlin -- currently fifth in the WC point standings -- labeled his afternoon "ridiculous racing" and said it "was a miracle" that similar carnage to the 20-car pile-up in the Daytona 500 did not occur again. Former WC champion Bill Elliott called the exercise "total BS. It's a shame when you look at a race and feel like you've had a good day just because you didn't get hurt."
Between them, Jarrett (5), Gordon (6), Marlin (6) and Elliott (12) have won 29 races at restrictor-plate tracks and finished 18th, 28th, 23rd and 33rd, respectively, in the most recent superspeedway spectacle at Talladega. As testimony to the volatile nature of the event, Blaney ran in the same position on consecutive laps in only 28 of the 188 laps, being shifted and shoved by the unpredictable tides of the draft at 190 miles-per-hour.
Buckshot Jones -- in 15th -- edged Blaney as the highest finishing of the nine Dodges in the field, although Marlin led the most laps of any driver. Pole-winner Stacy Compton exited with motor failure at mid-race and finished last. Blaney was also hampered by a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit, which went out by Lap 80 and turned an already tense race situation into a real pressure cooker for 1995 World of Outlaws sprint car champion.
"It seemed like if you could ever get to the top-10, you could stay there a little while. The times I got to the front, our car was really good in a single-file line. I just couldn't get there enough and couldn't get back there at the end. I didn't really see anyone's car all day that was strong enough to just jump out of line and go. That's the way these races are. Everybody's too equal to do much of anything.
"When we ran really close to people, the car got a little too tight to run hard but most of it just depended on where you were sitting in everyone else's air. The last lap wasn't that bad. Early in the race, everyone was at least giving each other 2-3 feet but at the end, it's maybe 2-3 inches and that's too close. If any of these guys said they enjoyed this thing -- even the winner -- they're lying.
"Still, for us, we've always seemed to qualify well but haven't had much luck in the restrictor-plate races -- even in the Busch Series -- so this seems like progress. I guess we could have ended up like Sterling and finished in the back with a great car or further to the front -- like some other guys -- who didn't have a clue how they ended up there. That's not really racing the way it should be. Thank goodness we'll see more of how it's supposed be at California."
With the finish, Blaney moved up two spots to 27th-place in the Winston Cup standings but, more importantly, gained points on teams further to the front as the 2001 season continues to surprise and jumble the order in the ranks. Blaney now trails BDR teammate Burton -- who dropped to 16th -- by only 124 points and is in the middle of a pack of drivers -- from Michael Waltrip in 19th (915 points) to Mike Skinner in 30th (810 points) separated by only 105 points. Blaney trails pre-season WC championship favorite Jeff Burton (26th) by only seven points and leads Jeremy Mayfield (28th) by only six points entering this weekend's race at California Speedway.
NOTES: STEVEN BERRY has joined the #93 Amoco/Siemens team as its Tire Specialist. Most recently, Berry was a tire specialist and tire-changer for the #92 Melling Racing team and driver Stacy Compton. Berry, a native of Boston, Massachusetts, joined the Melling team in 1997 after working in the NASCAR Winston West Series with driver Rich Woodland. He will also drive the at-track motorcoach for Car Owners Bill and Gail Davis, a role in which he also served for #92 team owner Mark Melling.