HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Unless you've walked a mile in his shoes, it is impossible to measure the considerable distance covered by Dave Blaney in his 95 career stock car starts at Bill Davis Racing over the past three seasons. A complete novice in...
HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Unless you've walked a mile in his shoes, it is impossible to measure the considerable distance covered by Dave Blaney in his 95 career stock car starts at Bill Davis Racing over the past three seasons.
A complete novice in fendered cars upon his arrival at BDR in 1998, Blaney has weathered a withering sequence of challenges during two NASCAR Busch Series seasons (1998-99) and his rookie Winston Cup campaign in 2000 as he unlearned 15 years worth of open-wheel driving instincts honed to a championship level in the World of Outlaws. As he discovered that less and less of that body of knowledge translated to stock cars, Blaney began to fully understand the magnitude of the challenge he had undertaken.
When he left sprint cars for NASCAR three years ago, Blaney was preceded into the sport by the wreckage of failed stock-car attempts by fellow WoO champions Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell. Many in the legion of WoO faithful considered Blaney the "last hope" for the difficult transition.
After last Sunday's stirring eighth-place career-best effort in the Checker Auto Parts 300 at Phoenix, Blaney and Amoco Ultimate Team 93 has now given them -- as well as a growing group of supporters within the NASCAR community -- substantive results to chart both his progress and his potential at NASCAR's top competitive level.=20
Blaney and the #93 Amoco/Siemens team had shown snapshots of front-running capability in the 14 races since mid-July when Doug Randolph -- previously the Car Chief on the #22 Caterpillar/Polaris Pontiac team for BDR teammate Ward Burton -- took over as crew chief and began to forge a closer bond between the top-ten team and Blaney's struggling first-year program.=20
While still mired deep in the NASCAR Winston Cup team standings (33rd entering this weekend's race at Homestead/Miami), all involved with the Amoco effort felt the table was set for breakthrough performance like Phoenix by Blaney, who ran at the front throughout the last half of the race and narrowly missed in his bid for a sixth-place finish when he slid high on the final turn and failed to complete his last-lap pass of Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
"There was a story written recently on Dave which pointed out how his learning curve went with the World of Outlaws when he started there," said Davis, who passed $13 million in earnings as a NASCAR owner with the Phoenix finishes and enjoyed his best day as a multi-car owner with Burton finishing 12th behind Blaney. "His start in WoO was much the same as it's been in NASCAR -- very careful to learn all he could without creating problems for the front-runners. Then one day, it all fit together and he just seemed to come from nowhere and run at the front every week.
"With the level of competition we have over here in Winston Cup, I'm sure that won't happen here but we may have seen something like that last weekend. He's put in his time, worked hard to learn the cars and their tendencies, and tried not to race the cars he couldn't beat. He's had a complete turnover with the crew since Daytona and that would be tough on any driver. But last weekend, there were no pretenders in that top ten (representing 23 of 32 race-wins in 2000) and he was ready to race up there with them. I couldn't be happier but I've said all along that once he got the right amount of laps in these cars, he was going to surprise some people. He's got a big future in this series."
Consistently his harshest critic throughout his career, Blaney did allow himself several moments of satisfaction following his team's best total effort of the season, albeit at the prompting of several writers at the post-race press conference.
"There's no question that this is the hardest thing I've ever tried to do in my career and the way we struggled the first half of the season made it that much tougher to stay positive about where we though we should be going as a team," said Blaney. "Several times this season, I've had a car capable of racing up front with those guys but something has put us behind or I couldn't get it done. That part's really been frustrating.
"To me, I know we've had a day like this coming for a long time. We just finally put a whole day together. We fell back at one point midway through the race but, for the last half, we were really coming. I can't ask for more than that. We're getting closer to where we want to be. I didn't think it would take us this long to have a top-ten finish but it's sweet none-the-less.=20
"It's great when you've got a car like we had at Phoenix. You've got to enjoy racing with those guys and having a car capable of being up front all day. We should have had a few more weekends like last weekend this year but that's racing. If it was easy, it wouldn't be as gratifying when the good stuff comes like this."
"A few weeks ago, Doug (Randolph) and I talked about trying to really make a difference over this last stretch of the season and get a little momentum for the 2001 season. This is the kind of effort across-the-board that we've all been expecting. I think we can do it any week if we can eliminate the little things that seem to have been plaguing us all year. We just haven't put a whole day together and we finally did. I couldn't be happier."
Early-exits at Bristol and Dover this fall -- neither of the team's making -- and a blown motor early at Rockingham have dulled the overall perception of progress that Blaney and the #93 Amoco/Siemens team has made since mid-July under Randolph -- a period when Blaney feels that his team has run as well or better than the leading contenders (Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr) for the 2000 Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year title.
Since the Pepsi 400 (15 races) at Daytona in July, Blaney's top-ten at Phoenix last weekend is one more than Earnhardt, Jr. has registered and his three aforementioned DNF's are one less over the same period than either Earnhardt, Jr. or Kenseth--both struggling since mid-summer after glossy starts (each with victories) to their rookie Winston Cup seasons.
And while fellow rookie contenders Stacy Compton, Mike Bliss and Scott Pruett have all failed to qualify for five races during the 2000 season, Blaney missed only the second race of the season at Rockingham and ranks a solid third in every significant statistical category, including the critical miles-completed category where almost 80% of his unfinished miles are represented in his three early-exits this fall.
"I think if you look at it closely, those guys (Kenseth and Earnhardt, Jr.) and their teams have performed more like most first-year programs do lately after getting off to great starts," said Blaney, who also has benefited this fall from three strong runs (third at Dover and Charlotte; ninth at Darlington) with the #20 AT&T/BDR Busch Series team.
"I know since mid-season, I feel like our team has been as fast as those guys most weekends. We maybe haven't gotten the finishes they have, but as far as just racing all day I feel like we've been pretty close to them. They definitely came out fast. I don't know if they've dropped off any, just that we've picked up to the level we'd hoped for at the start of the season. The progress we've made this fall and the things that the Dodge program will bring to us next season at BDR has really made me anxious to get going for next year."