Blaney ready for rookie battle royale By Brett Borden DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 20, 2000) Usually, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race shapes up as a two-man duel, with each man scratching and clawing for every point and ounce of respect he...
Blaney ready for rookie battle royale By Brett Borden
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 20, 2000) Usually, the Raybestos Rookie of the Year race shapes up as a two-man duel, with each man scratching and clawing for every point and ounce of respect he can get.
Just look at last year, where a crowded rookie field was essentially pared down to the torrid twosome of Tony Stewart and Elliott Sadler after only a few scrapes with the veterans.
Or look at the year before, when Kenny Irwin and Kevin Lepage were left to handle the load when Steve Park went down with an injury the first half of the year.
This year, however, is shaping up to be different. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth have graduated from the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division after dominating the past two years there, but there are other strong candidates as well. Scott Pruett and Dave Blaney are the latest wave of the open-wheel invasion into NASCAR. Jeff Fuller joins Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Blaney in the move up from the NASCAR Busch Series. And Mike Bliss and Stacy Compton, two of the most successful drivers in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series the past few years, have thrown their helmets into the ring, too.
High hopes are in high abundance. There are seven drivers who have yet to hit the wall of disappointment. A few trips home after failing to qualify can bring high hopes back to Earth in a hurry. Just ask Buckshot Jones.
For Blaney in particular, qualifying could be a strength of his rookie program instead of a weakness. He has always been particularly adept at this skill, winning four Bud Poles last season in the NASCAR Busch Series, more than Earnhardt Jr. or Kenseth. Thus Blaney has good reason to be revved up and ready to go in 2000.
"We're excited about it," said the driver of the No. 93 Amoco Pontiac. "We've got a good race team over there -- Bill Davis' got a real good race team to lean on with the Caterpillar team, just ready to get going.
"You know, being a rookie, you can't learn anything unless you're in that car racing it, so as soon as I can get in there and get racing, we can start the learning, but you know it looks like the rookie class is going to be pretty exciting -- a lot of good drivers and good race teams. It will be something to watch and something for us to shoot for. I tell you it would be a real accomplishment if a guy could win the rookie race this year. I feel like we've got an even shot going in. I feel good about our race team at every race track. But even more than the rookie class, we want to run good everywhere -- just have a solid season regardless how the rookie race ends up. We're just ready to go."
Blaney had five starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series last year -- at Michigan, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Miami and Atlanta. His average start was 17.2, while his average finish was 32.2. His last two Bud Pole Qualifying efforts were fourth at Miami and seventh at Atlanta.
"I learned a lot every race whether it was Busch or Winston Cup," said Blaney, who came to the NASCAR Busch Series from the world of Sprint Cars. "You know those cars are different no doubt, the Cup cars with the more horsepower and I don't know it feels more natural to drive those to me than it does the Busch cars, so I was excited about that.
"To tell you the truth though the ones we're in the middle of the summer, we were maybe as ready for them as I would like to have been. In the last two months of the year, we did spend some more time and I thought we were ready and we timed in the top-10 in both of them and ran decent, so we kept getting better with the Cup car through those five races and it just pumps everybody up if you can keep progressing with it."
Progress is relative. Some build for success in the long haul. Others need results right away. Blaney says despite his knack for driving fast on the track, he prefers to build towards a championship in a more deliberate fashion.
"I'm looking at the overall picture instead of the rookie race," he said. "Just for an example, I think I could possibly say I could finish 12th in the points and have a really good year and I could still lose the rookie race. I mean there's a couple of guys who could do better than that easily. So we're looking for a good year, period, regardless of the rookie race."
Pretty steady thinking for a rookie-to-be. But then, Blaney has been around the block.
"You know, I'm not 21-years-old, I've raced for a while," he said. "I don't feel like a rookie. Some days I do, but we just want to build up to a solid start. I'm worried about my Amoco team and Ward Burton's team. It's going to be, in our eyes, the two Bill Davis teams against everybody else and that's what I've got to look at. You know I guess I do want to get off to a solid start for my team the first six to eight races if we can just be consistent and not make too many mistakes and not wreck the race car, I'm going to be pleased with it."
Let the battle royale commence.