#77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team makes key changes by adding Crew Chief Barker, engineering depth, over-the-wall crew to maintain momentum in second season with Dave Blaney.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Until the final 24 hours of the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, Dave Blaney had produced the level of results that he fully expected--and few outside the Jasper Motorsports family predicted--in his first season with the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team.
Prior to the season-finale at Homestead/Miami Speedway, Blaney--ending his third WC season--was positioned a career-high 19th in the standings, ranked second in both the miles- and laps-completed categories, carried momentum from a season-high seventh-place finish the previous weekend at Phoenix and was returning to a track where he'd finished sixth and ninth in his two previous starts.
Unfortunately, Blaney saved the worst for last in his inaugural season with the #77 Jasper team, spinning into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 2 of the 267-lap event while attempting to pass a slower car in traffic. His car could not be repaired after two trips to the garage and Blaney parked the #77 Jasper Ford after only 19 laps.
The 248 laps and 372 miles which Blaney did not complete with only his third DNF of the season represented almost twice the number of laps (142) and over twice the number of miles (177.61) that Blaney had failed to complete in the first 35 races of the 2002 season.
The last-place result at Homestead was only the third finish lower than 30th in 2002, as well as the first below 40th. And a finish of only 26th or better in Miami would have positioned Blaney two positions higher in the driver standings, and one position higher in the team rankings.
Although the eventual 19th-place finish was a career-best for both driver and team, the less-than-satisfying punctuation for the promising 2002 season left Blaney anxious to shorten the off-season and return to the track as soon as possible to begin redemption for the flat finale and to continue the team's positive progress, which included only five top-ten finishes but results between 15th and 20th in one-third of the team's 36 starts.
"Overall, I think we had a great first season together at Jasper Motorsports, but it sure didn't end up the way we all wanted to," said Blaney, whose #77 team joined the surging Roush Racing Fords, Cal Wells' single-car operation and the #15 DEI teams as those which made the biggest one-year improvement (2001-2002) among the top-20 finishers in the final WC team standings.
"At the start of the season, we set our goal to finish 15th in the final standings and we fell 218 points short of that, many of those on the last weekend in Miami. Until the Homestead race, we had gotten to a pretty good level of consistency with our engines and equipment, and that's a big first step toward moving forward where we want to go. We're probably looking to set our goals a little higher for 2003."
With several options open to him during the final third of the 2002 season, Blaney stayed the course with the #77 Jasper team--which joined the #32 Cal Wells entry as the only single-car teams to finish in the top-20 in the 2002 standings--in helping move the team closer toward becoming a weekly contender. He also savored the thought of enjoying his first NASCAR off-season in five years without tumultuous change with the organization for which he would be preparing to race.
After enduring a revolving-door with crew chiefs, changing manufacturers and a lame-duck sponsorship in his first four NASCAR seasons (2-Busch, 2-Winston Cup) at Bill Davis Racing, Blaney joined Jasper Motorsports Ford team last January as one of only two drivers (with Stacy Compton) to compete in three different brands in his first three Winston Cup Series seasons.
Ironically, Blaney will enjoy only a percentage of the comfortable continuity he looked forward given the key changes at crew chief (Robert "Bootie" Barker), fabrication shop foreman (Pat Marshall from Hendrick Motorsports) and the over-the-wall pit crew (four additions) With the addition of Barker, an engineering graduate from Old Dominion University who'll be in his first WC managerial role, as well as Josh Watkins, the team now boasts five engineers--including Car Chief Kevin Kidd--as it continues to move decidedly in a more technical direction.
"We've put in motion a pretty aggressive move toward an even more technical approach to our program, which already had a fair amount of engineering input from our staff," said Blaney. "We saw success with other programs this season--including the #12 (Penske South) team next door, the Ganassi Racing teams and the #32 team that brought many of its group from Cal Wells' CART teams--that have increased interaction between their engineers and crew members.
"(Team Manager/Co-Owner) Mark Harrah has had the program pointed in that direction for a while, but adding Bootie as our new crew chief reflects how serious they are about moving ahead even further with our in-house engineering program and also keeping up the steady progress we've made on the track. We've all made a pretty big commitment to each other on how we want to move forward this season. I'm very comfortable with where this team is going and what we can accomplish."
Barker, 31, who joined Jasper Motorsports after serving two seasons as crew chief for the #23 Bill Davis Racing team and driver Scott Wimmer in the NASCAR Busch Series, is a former chassis/shock specialist for the #24 Hendrick Motorsports team for four-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon (1999-2000) and for the #22 Bill Davis Racing team and driver Ward Burton (1998-99).
Barker rejoined BDR in fall, 2000 as crew chief for Wimmer, then a recent graduate of the American Speed Association (ASA), and flourished in his first managerial role, guiding Wimmer to four NASCAR Busch Series victories and finishes of 11th and third, respectively, in the NBS standings (2001-2002) with limited sponsorship support.
"Every guy in my position wants to compete against the best, and this opportunity to work with the Jasper team and Dave gave me the platform to race against the best in the world every week in the Winston Cup Series" said Barker, who helped Gordon win five WC races at four different tracks in alliance with then-#24 crew chief Ray Evernham during his 15-month sabbatical to the #24 team between his two stints at BDR.
"People say it all the time in positive situations, but it really is a dream come true for me. I've worked with Dave before and we had success right from the start, so I know our communication and our ideas about the cars are on a similar level. The chance to work with Dave starting this season is my chance to move forward and find out what I really can do against the best. That's what it's about for me.
"The guys at the #77 shop have been great from the first day I got there, and the owners have given me everything a crew chief would want to go out and improve every week and win races. I like the direction they have gone in bringing in a little more engineering influence into their organization, a direction I believe is the way most teams will make their big strides on the track in the next few years. We hope to stay right in stride with them."
One other variable this season for the #77 Jasper Motorsports team--whose primary owner Doug Bawel now ranks 20th behind the legendary Bud Moore in all-time NASCAR WC winnings--will be the evolution of the new Penske-Jasper Engines operation. PJE will now produce Ford engines exclusively for Blaney while building Dodge power plants for both the #2 (Rusty Wallace) and #12 (Ryan Newman) Penske South entries, which switch to Dodge sheet-metal in 2003.
Since the collaborative effort between Penske and Jasper Engines began in 2001, the results have been substantial. PJE-powered drivers have posted top-ten finishes in one-third (73) of the 216 races run by Wallace, Newman, Blaney, Jeremy Mayfield (2001) and Robert Pressley (2001).
The Penske duo of Newman and Wallace contended for the 2002 title until the last two races of the season, finishing sixth and seventh, respectively, in the final WC standings, only 19 points apart. Newman--the WC Rookie-of-the-Year--won at New Hampshire in July, tied points-runner-up Mark Martin for the most top-ten finishes (22) and fell one short (14) of the series-leading top-five total of WC champion Tony Stewart. Newman started in the top-three for one-third of his races, leading all WC drivers with six pole positions while also earning four outside poles and three third-place starts in his first season.
Wallace failed to win but finished second four times (Daytona, Indianapolis, Bristol, Phoenix) and enjoyed one of his most consistent seasons since his championship campaign in 1989, under the steady guidance of first-year crew chief Bill Wilburn. Enroute to 17 top-ten finishes, Wallace finished first in laps-completed (99%) and third in miles-completed (98.26%)
"I come from a horsepower league (World of Outlaws), where I drove 1,200-pound race-cars with 800-plus horsepower, and the ratio between the two was as small as in any series you can race," said Blaney, who (with 111 career WC starts) trails both Kenny Wallace (264 starts) and Mike Skinner (203 starts) among active drivers seeking their first career win in 2003. ""For sure, you must get these big cars handling and get through the corners at every track we race at, whether it's Martinsville or Talladega. But if you are lacking horsepower, and your engine program is behind, you cannot compete for wins weekly in the Winston Cup Series.
"I really feel that the Penske-Jasper Engine program is at the top of the list among the engine builders in NASCAR, and I felt that way before I came over here. I also believe that the fact we only build for the three teams that are part of the project is an important part of how far we progressed in 2001 and 2002. With the switch of the two Penske South teams to Dodge this season, it will be interesting to see how the two programs will interact under one roof. I can't wait to get the season started.