Blaney, #77 Jasper Ford join Newman, Wallace in top-ten as all three Penske-Jasper powered cars contend for win behind upset winner.
With perhaps his team's most tenacious effort of the season, Dave Blaney registered a resilient top-ten result in the rain-delayed UAW-GM 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. and joined Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman in another outstanding overall outcome for the Penske-Jasper Engine-powered trio.
After starting 21st on points following Thursday's qualifying washout, Blaney ran into the mid-teens through much of the races early stages, fell a lap down after a slow mid-race pit-stop, then rejoined the lead-lap cars (with Newman) after a fortuitous caution flag fell with 105 laps remaining.
The sprint back to the caution following a multi-car, front-stretch accident on Lap 229 allowed both Newman and Blaney to rejoin the lead-lap contenders, including eventual surprise winner Jamie McMurray, the Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs of Bobby Labonte and NASCAR Winston Cup Series points leader Tony Stewart--who finished 2-3--and Jeff Gordon, who finished fourth ahead of Wallace and Jimmie Johnson, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
And as the approaching darkness enveloped the track due to the 3-hour, 24-minute rain delay, Crew Chief Ryan Pemberton continued to make positive changes to his car, allowing Blaney and the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford to move steadily forward over the race's final 100 miles, moving as high as fifth during a green-flag pit sequence before closing in tenth, two spots behind Newman.
"Anytime you get a top 10, you're a little bit satisfied, but had a hard time late in the runs all day, so we've got to be satisfied with where we finished," said Blaney, who remained first among all Winston Cup Series drivers in laps-completed and moved into second in miles-completed, only 35.5 miles behind Johnson as former leader Bill Elliott was sidelined for almost one-third of the race to repair damage from a blown tire.
"We were real slow and real tight at the end of several of the runs through the middle of the race, but the darker it got and the cooler it got, the better we got and we really came on at the end. On that last run, we were real competitive. The guys had a good pit stop and got me out in good shape. We weren't bad at the end if we could have had that all day.
"It was just a long day and the rain-delay--which backed-up the race into the evening--made it even longer. You try to get the car handling better and my guys changed a lot of stuff to finally get it good, so they did a good job. We made some gains in the points and we're hoping to make up some more ground in the next five races."
For Newman and Wallace--the other Penske-Jasper-powered entries--their top-ten finishes helped them hold position in the chase for the 2002 Winston Cup championship and capped off a noteworthy weekend, during which the announcement was made that the Penske South pair would switch from Ford to Dodge for the 2003 season and beyond.
"That was a pretty good run for us and a fifth-place finish is OK for us now, with all that's at stake," said Wallace. "I got a little too tight at the very end there, and I needed a little bit more speed out of the car, but it was real solid all day long. I didn't really have anything go wrong throughout the whole day that I had to be worried about, except that I just needed a faster car.
"What's important is that we're still in the hunt for the championship. We're looking good. We gained some more points today, so it's gonna be a shootout. There's no doubt about it, right until the very end. There's five races left and crazy things can still happen--we saw a guy with only two races under his belt win a Winston Cup race today--so we're within striking distance and that's all you can ask for at this point in the season."
Newman's eighth-place finish was his 20th top-ten finish of his rookie season--best among all WC drivers--and continued a spectacular storyline with first-year drivers, extended with his improbable victory by 2003 Rookie-of-the-Year candidate McMurray, who led 96 laps enroute to his first NASCAR win in any of the sanctioning body's major divisions.
"I've got to thank Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray. I congratulate them, but at the same time they gave us our lap back when Dave and I really needed it and that doesn't happen very often nowadays," said Newman, whose effort came in a back-up car after a practice crash on Saturday. "It's just a pretty good result for the ALLTEL Ford to come from where we did to finish in the top 10. We were in a pretty good hole when we got a lap down, but the guys had good pit stops and got us back in the front of the line and we got our lap back. It was purely teamwork, there's no other word for it."
"I definitely don't think this car was as good as the one that I crashed on Saturday, so I'll have to remember that come Saturday practice next week, but it was just one of those things. We worked on it all day and as the track changed, the sun came out and then it got cool. It was 180 degrees different from where we started at the end of the race, but we were good enough to get another top-ten. We're still in it for the championship and that's what counts right now."
With his tenth-place finish, Blaney and the #77 Jasper team moved up two positions unofficially to 19th in the Winston Cup owners standings, four points ahead of the #29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team (Kevin Harvick), 21 points ahead of the #31 RCR team (Robbie Gordon) and 46 points ahead of the #45 Petty Enterprises Dodge (Kyle Petty) entering this weekend's final short-track event of the 2002 season at Martinsville. Blaney remains 19th in the WC driver's standings, 127 points behind 2000 champion Bobby Labonte.
At the top of the standings, Stewart extended his lead to 97 points over runner-up Johnson, while Mark Martin--who finished 16th after experiencing mechanical problems for the third straight race--fell 122 points back. The Penske South duo of Newman and Wallace now trail Stewart by 165 and 182 points, respectively, in fourth- and fifth-place while defending champion Gordon is sixth, 211 points out of first-place.