HIGH POINT, NC -- As Dave Blaney prepared to make his final pit stop under ominous clouds at Michigan Speedway last Sunday, Amoco Crew Chief Gil Martin realized that the situation was a microcosm of all that had passed between them in their 30 ...
HIGH POINT, NC -- As Dave Blaney prepared to make his final pit stop under ominous clouds at Michigan Speedway last Sunday, Amoco Crew Chief Gil Martin realized that the situation was a microcosm of all that had passed between them in their 30 months together at Bill Davis Racing. After a difficult spring segment to his first year as a Raybestos Winston Cup Rookie-of-the-Year candidate, Blaney had enjoyed a breakthrough-type weekend, returning for the first time to a track where he had already run a Winston Cup event.
After qualifying 17th, Blaney had raced in the mid-teens throughout the race and Martin faced the "two-tire, four-tire" dilemna with his rookie driver, poised for his best career finish in 16th but fourth among 20 lap-down cars. For a driver with a limited but developing experience curve, Martin knew the situation would be a rude awakening for the former World of Outlaws champion.
"I knew as soon as I made the decision to take two tires that Dave was going to get hammered from behind when we went back racing," said Martin, a former co-owner and crew chief of FilMar Racing in his 13th NASCAR season. "With 20 laps to go and the weather approaching, Dave had never seen the kind of hornet's nest it was when it went green. They were passing him in the grass at the start/finish line, on the high side, everywhere that first lap. Like so many situations he's been in since coming over from sprint cars, it was a totally new deal for him. And like we've found out, he'll be prepared and get it right the next time."
Although he eventually finished 25th in the #93 Amoco/Siemens Pontiac when the rains ended the race five minutes later, Blaney's overall effort signaled to Martin and car owner Bill Davis the sort of progress the pair had expected as Blaney approached mid-season. In his first NASCAR season (1998), Blaney struggled mightily in BGN competition through June, then became a weekly top-ten contender when the schedule returned to tracks for a second time during the fall segment.
Whether Blaney -- currently 33rd in the WC points entering this weekend's race at Pocono-- ascends as a weekly NASCAR Winston Cup contender in the same time frame or not, Martin realizes that he has already accomplished more with the 15-year sprint car veteran than any other NASCAR crew chief has been able to do with a former World of Outlaws graduate.
Steve Kinser, the penultimate WoO performer, lasted until late April in his only Winston Cup foray, failing to qualify at twice and finished 40th or worse in three of his five starts before returning to dirt. Sammy Swindell, Blaney's other WoO nemesis in the 1990's, fared slightly better in a short Truck Series effort in 1995, posting five top-tens in 20 starts before heading back to the WoO.
"There is a certain amount of personal satisfaction in knowing we've all gotten further in the stock cars with Dave than any of the other WoO drivers who have tried to make the transition, "said Martin, whose racing resume includes BGN victories at FilMar Racing with five drivers including Jeff Burton, Bobby Hamilton, Rick Mast, David Green and Kenny Wallace. "It's also a tough time for a guy with the challenges that Dave had to be breaking into the Winston Cup Series. Tony Stewart, Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Matt Kenseth have made huge entries into a real competitive series and made it look easy. It's not. This is the best of the best and for Dave to be out here with them, given as far as he had to go, is a great achievement in itself. Our goals as a team are still mostly internal.
"Before Tony Stewart rewrote the rookie records last year, the average finish in the points for the top 20 rookies to come into this series over the past decade is 27th. Jeff Gordon was 14th in the points in his first year and that was as good as it got until Tony came along last year. What we'd all like for Dave is to just be more comfortable in these cars when we go to these tracks a second time and feel like he can really race in a situation like he found himself in last Sunday. And he will."
Interestingly, Bill Davis' last rookie experience in the Winston Cup Series was in 1993 with Bobby Labonte, the current WC points leader by 102 points over #22 BDR driver Ward Burton in the quest for the 2000 championship. After his first 14 races for BDR, Labonte ranked 27th in the WC points, had five DNFs (including 4 wrecks), comparable start/finish averages and an identical laps-completed ratio to Blaney (90.7%). He blossomed in the second half of the season to finish 19th in the points, the second-best overall rookie performance of the 1990s behind Gordon until Stewart's remarkable rookie effort in 1999.