HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Justifiably overshadowed by the heart-wrenching, heart-stopping photo-finish victory by Winston Cup novice Kevin Harvick, Dave Blaney's startling performance in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be relegated...
HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Justifiably overshadowed by the heart-wrenching, heart-stopping photo-finish victory by Winston Cup novice Kevin Harvick, Dave Blaney's startling performance in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be relegated to footnote status for all but those within the Bill Davis Racing organization that have been expecting a break-out effort by the former sprint-car star in just his fourth NASCAR season.
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 revealed that all lug nuts were tight, Blaney again 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.
While in-shop work at BDR will focus this week on a drive-plate within the rear-wheel housing on the #93 Amoco/Siemens Dodge that was a likely problem area, 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".
"(Crew Chief) Doug Randolph and 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," said Blaney. "Guess 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. We expected to come here and run good. Did we think we'd have the car to beat with 120 laps to go, Probably not, but we did and couldn't capitalize on it. We'll try again."
Neverthless, the momentum and progress shown by Blaney and his young team since last October has been dramatic and indicates a brighter future for the Buckeye Bullet, the 1995 World of Outlaws champion. With his seventh-place qualifying effort for the Cracker Barrel 500, Blaney joined pole-winner Dale Jarrett as the only WC drivers to qualify in the top ten in each of his last four races at AMS. Including his 1999 pole position (and second-place finish) and ninth-place start in his rookie NASCAR season (1998), Blaney has never qualified out of the top-ten (in six starts) at AMS.
His Atlanta race performance was the third time in the past five races (of only 44 career WC starts) that Blaney has flirted with victory, dating back to his run at the front throughout the day in the season-finale at AMS. In the 2001 Daytona 500, Blaney ran in the top-five for 50 of 135 laps before engine failure ended his day.
"It sure looked like Dave had the car to win today and I know he's crushed," said Car Owner Bill Davis. "I don't blame him. He's come so far in such a short period of time for a guy who had zero stock-car experience on any level just three years ago. It looks like a drive plate came loose and we'll need to see if it was something we could have prevented.
"The only good thing to say about the Atlanta race was that (teammate) Ward (Burton) the #22 team was not very good after practice, then almost got a top-ten out of it (12th) because of some good communication between our teams. This was the fourth race of the year and we've had cars that could have won two of them. We don't have much to show for that but we'll keep moving forward. Both teams are showing all the right signs."
Including Burton's dominant performance in the Daytona 500 (which ended in the multi-car wreck on lap 175), the BDR Dodges have led 13.3% of all miles and 10.4% of all laps so far in the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season, yet have only one top-ten finish (Blaney's ninth-place finish at Rockingham) among their eight cumulative finishes. And the 240.3 miles and 123 laps led by Blaney and Burton outdistance the totals of the remaining eight Dodge teams combined entering this weekend's race at Darlington.