HIGH POINT, NC -- The scene is a familiar one each racing season. Before his first trip around the original Sears Point Raceway layout as a rookie for Bill Davis Racing in 1993, current NASCAR Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte sat in...
HIGH POINT, NC -- The scene is a familiar one each racing season. Before his first trip around the original Sears Point Raceway layout as a rookie for Bill Davis Racing in 1993, current NASCAR Winston Cup points leader Bobby Labonte sat in the floor of the transporter of older brother Terry and mapped out the winding layout like two kids half their age. Facing each other with legs spread wide in front of them, the elder Labonte used a magic marker to trace the right path, making the appropriate varooming noises as he shifted imaginary gears around the almost two-mile layout. Next to a test session, it was the most comfort the younger Labonte could find before tacklign what is for some NASCAR drivers their most daunting challenge.
Enter Dave Blaney, dirt-track veteran and current BDR rookie in the #93 Amoco/Siemens Pontiac. In 15 seasons and over 1,350 starts in sprint cars, Blaney ran on almost every kind of track configuration, from the quarter-mile bull rings common to many fairgrounds around the country to the streamlined facilities where the prestigious Amoco Knoxville (IA) Nationals are run each August to the fabled one-mile dirt oval at the Syracuse (NY) Fairgrounds where sprint cars' finest drivers congregate each October for Dirt Week. Everything but a road course.=20
"With the possible exception of maneuvers taken to avoid pot-holes while racing at some of our less-desirable dirt tracks, " Blaney began, "I never ran on a track layout that even came close to preparing me for the road racing necessary in NASCAR. In 1998, we ran an abbreviated schedule (20 races) which did not include the Busch Series' only road course event -- Watkins Glen. When the Series went to there last summer, the first time I saw the track was the first day of practice when I drove off pit road and onto the track for our first practice session.
"For various reasons during my first two NASCAR seasons, we had to go to a track for race weekend with the driver never having seen the place. Early in 1998 when I was just getting started in stock cars, we found ourselves fixing a lot of damaged race cars and canceling a lot of scheduled test sessions due to lack of equipment. I think 17 times in my 51 Busch Series starts in 1998-99, I showed up for the first day of practice with no track time at that track. Only twice -- at Darlington and Michigan in 1998 -- did we have to load up and go home.
"I think because our Crew Chief Gil Martin and all our guys had become accustomed to this kind of challenge and because they knew the closest thing to road-course racing I had done was probably back home on the backroads near my home in Ohio, the atmosphere around our team was pretty loose. It was a good thing. At least four times during the practice sessions prior to qualifying, I ventured off-course. Three of those times, I misjudged the corner at the end of the Glen's long front-stretch that ends up giving a driver two options -- a hard downhill right turn on the track or a long slide straight into the sand pit. Three times, I returned to the pits so my guys could blow the sand from under the car and send me back out.
"But a strange thing also happened. Probably because I had really looked forward to going to the Glen and because we had all kept an open mind about my severe lack of experience, we all we having a great time in spite of my off-road adventures. And my times steadily dropped throughout the day. Three thousand miles away where the Winston Cup teams were practicing for their race at Sears Point, Bill Davis must have thought he was seeing typos on the BGN practice sheet."
Blaney didn't see it but when he took the green flag for his first qualifying lap later that day, the corner workers and NASCAR officials stationed adjacent to the Turn 1 sand pit all applauded as he made it through the corner and on to the esses. They were all wearing hard-hats in his honor, but he didn't mind hearing the story later. He had qualified eighth.
"I remember talking to Jack Baldwin -- a great road racer from the Trans-Am Series -- before the race," said Blaney, currently ranked 33rd in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings entering this weekend's Save Mart 300. "He said that so many of the stock car guys beat themselves on road courses before the green flag ever falls---by taking such a negative attitude with them into the race. Our group had done the opposite and I can say it really helped me as much as the track time. "
Blaney raced with the front pack most of the day but got a little too eager in the uphill curves just before the backstretch with 20 laps to go and spun the Amoco/Siemens Pontiac around while running sixth. By the time he got going again, Blaney had dropped 20 spots (to 26th). After making into the last hour of the weekend with such a positive first road course experience, Blaney was not about to leave empty-handed . He passed 18 cars in 20 laps to get back to eighth at the finish.
"We came closer to winning several races last year but I probably had more fun road course racing than anything I had done in a stock car to that point," said Blaney. "I hated for the race to end. And probably out of all the drivers who were either new to the series or to the sport, I may have been the least-likely guy to take to non-oval racing after growing up and getting most of my racing experience at the other end of the racing spectrum.=20
"All this is not to say that our Amoco/Siemens team is not going to struggle when we come back to California for our first Winston Cup road course race together Unlike Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and most of the other Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year candidates, I didn't get to test or to take the Jim Russell school at Sears Point that seems to help so many of the drivers new to the track.
"I did get to come out and watch a full day of testing prior to our race at Fontana and it's pretty obvious that the track is a lot more challenging than Watkins Glen in both it's hilly layout and in some of the narrow segments of the track where passing just doesn't seem to be an option. I know for sure that we'll come back with two good cars and probably the same mindset that we all took to Watkins Glen last summer. When I was running with the World of Outlaws, we ran a lot throughout California, especially in the Central Valley, and I thought the race fans in that area were some of the best we had. I'm sure it will be an adventure but I'm going to be positive regardless."
<pre> DAVE BLANEY -- 2000 WINSTON CUP SERIES RESULTS--#93 AMOCO/SIEMENS PONTIAC
EVENT(date) ST/FN Q.TIME/SPD. LAPS(LD) PTS./POS. EARNINGS STATUS
DAYTONA (2/20) 31/27 47.541/189.310 199-200 82/27th $89,625 -------
ROCKINGHAM (2/27) x-x 23.765/154.058 x-x 25/39thT xx DNQ
LAS VEGAS (3/5) 36/22 32.121/168.114 147-148 97/36th $56,675 -------
ATLANTA (3/12) 9/20 28.963/191.417 322-325 103/29th $45,220 -------
DARLINGTON (3/19) 15/26 28.874/170.312 290-293 85/31st $25,435 -------
BRISTOL (3/26) 26/35 15.400/124.597 457-500 58/33rd $26,765 wreck
TEXAS (4/2) 24/22 28.584/188.917 331-334 97/30th $60,700 -------
MARTINSVILLE (4/9) 20/41 20.104/94.190 400-500 40/30th $21,525 handling
TALLADEGA (4/16) 16/30 51.583/185.643 151-188 73/32nd $20,125 wreck
CALIFORNIA (4/30) 17/38 38.779/185.668 236-250 49/32nd $35,525 -------
RICHMOND (5/6) 32/34 22.033/122.543 339-400 61/33rd $23,500 -------
CHARLOTTE (5/28) 30/40 29.654/182.100 291-400 43/36th $33,315 motor
DOVER (6/4) 27/25 23.074/156.020 394-400 88/35th $44,305 -------
MICHIGAN (6/11) 17/25 38.561/186.717 193-194 88/33rd $24,120 -------
POCONO (6/19) 35/30 53.827/167.202 195-200 73/33rd $32,040 -------
2000 BUSCH SERIES RESULTS -- #20 AT&T PONTIAC
CALIFORNIA (4/29) 28/18 40.726/176.791 149-150 109/38nd $17,950 -------
RICHMOND (5/5) 21/22 22.213/121.523 250-250 97/37th $8,535 -------
CHARLOTTE (5/27) 1/36 30.404/177.605 156-200 55/37th $15,305 -------
DOVER (6/3) 5/8 23.306/153.938 200-200 142/34th $12,315 -------