Blaney finishes career-best third at Darlington. DARLINGTON, S.C. -- From where he was when the checkered flag fell on the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington, Dave Blaney could almost see his first win. After running in the top-five...
Blaney finishes career-best third at Darlington.
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- From where he was when the checkered flag fell on the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington, Dave Blaney could almost see his first win. After running in the top-five through much of the race, Blaney found himself trailing Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch by only car lengths as the two began to slam into each other in the final five miles like a pair of Saturday night short-track warriors.
And while both the front-runners finished upright and took the top two spots in the closest finish (.002-secs.) since NASCAR began charting the statistic in 1993, Blaney's third-place finish--his third top-ten finish in the past four weeks with new Crew Chief "Bootie" Barker--pushed his #77 Jasper Motorsports team to it's highest-ever ranking (7th) in the WC standings and into the early-season spotlight as one of the most compelling NASCAR storylines.
"A day like this is huge for us," said Blaney, whose previous career-best finishes were three sixth-place finishes (Texas, Michigan 2, Miami) in his final season (2001) with Bill Davis Racing. "I've felt all along I could race with these guys, but it's just tough to get everything put together. I feel like we've got a team that's running well. Everything is flowing pretty good. We're not changing much with these cars.
"(Fabrication Shop Foreman) Pat Marshall and the guys at the shop are putting great bodies on the cars and they've got me in the ballpark. We're just trying to stay there and not dial ourselves out. They're fast off the truck and Bootie has the whole team energized and doing a great job. He came on as crew chief over the winter and he's pretty much transformed our team.
"We've got some different kind of cars, different bodies, kind of all new stuff and it's going well. We're competitive. We had a bad week at Vegas, but other than that, we've been pretty competitive. The cars are better before they leave the shop, that's where it's at. The front-ends work better. The bodies make the front ends work better, so that's the whole game here. If you get the car to turn, you can make it go after that. He's got the cars turning better and we've always had horsepower that's as good as anybody, so the whole mix is good right now."
In a rare day when two single-car teams (#32 and #77) finished in the top-three, Blaney was a contender from the start, moving into the top-ten from his 18th-place starting position in the first 100 miles and remaining there throughout the race. After exiting in fifth following the final round of caution-flag pit stops on Lap 237, Blaney inched forward toward the front over the final 52 green-flag laps, watching the door-to-door finale for the win over the last three laps between Craven and Busch from just a few feet behind the pair.
"I knew there was a chance they would end up in a smoking pile over in the corner and we'd be in position to win, but I also didn't need to end up in the middle of that pile," said Blaney about the thrilling duel between Craven and Busch for the win. ""As we came down to the finish, I could tell Ricky was a little faster and he was gonna do what it took to get around him. They almost wrecked in Turn Two on the white-flag lap, so I was actually just trying to stay as far ahead of Mark Martin as I could so if something happened I could maybe miss it and do some good. But it was kind of fun just to watch it from the seat I had. With a seat that good for the finish, your team is also doing something right.
"Our guys kept the car balanced today pretty good from the start of the run to the end of the run and that just kept us near the front and in the hunt. There at the end, we just weren't as good at the end of that long run as we had been earlier in the race for some reason. I might have been running too hard trying to keep up. I thought something bad could happen and we might luck into it. Still, it was a great day. I think we have some more of these ahead, looking at what we've got going so far."
Rounding out the top-ten behind the front-running trio were Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who lead the most laps--92), pole-winner Elliott Sadler, Matt Kenseth, Bill Elliott and Tony Stewart, the only cars still running on the lead-lap at the finish. With the finish, Blaney moved into seventh-place in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings, 157 points behind points-leader Kenseth--but only 31 points behind fourth-place Earnhardt, Jr., entering next weekend's race at Bristol.
The other two Penske-Jasper-powered entries--Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace, finished 14th and 16th, respectively, and stand 12th and 20th in the WC standings after five races in the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season.
"Well, we didn't crash, and that's good," said Newman. "We tried once with Ward (Burton). He got me in the left rear quarter. It didn't really hurt the car as much as it just put us in the back again. We had to fight back. We didn't have a great race car today. A fourteenth-place finish is a lot better than the race car performed. I was just happy we guessed right and (Crew Chief) Matt (Borland) made some good calls. We just missed the setup a little bit.
"We're up to 12th in the points, but we need to be higher than that. It all comes down to about a seventh- or eighth-place average to win the championship, and a 14th ain't going to get you that. I heard the finish today was pretty good. I wish I had been up there close enough to see it, but there again, that's the kind of racing you have here at Darlington."