Blaney, Barker, WC ...
Blaney, Barker, WC #77 make final Speedweeks plans.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Harrah, the guy who flies that weird little Questair to and from his race shop office every day, has added another engineer to his Winston Cup team. And if, as Ray Evernham said, the crew chief of the future is the crew chief-engineer, such as Penske's Matt Borland, well, meet Robert Barker, freshly promoted.
Barker, who led Scott Wimmer to a flurry of Busch victories last fall while working for Bill Davis, will be calling the shots for Dave Blaney this season, taking over from Ryan Pemberton on the team that Harrah owns and guides.
"In one way I think it's overrated," Barker - Old Dominion, Class of '96 - said of the crew chief-engineer designation. "Having a degree, all it does in my opinion is tell people you have the mental capacity to learn. Having that piece of paper said, 'Yeah, I am smart enough to do something. Now, is it applicable here? I don't know. Naturally you've got to be a smart guy, or be somewhat smart. To get a degree is hard. To get an engineering degree is difficult. But what I'm trying to say is there are other smart men out here without degrees that could do just as well."
When Pemberton decided to leave near the end of last season, Blaney pitched Barker, whom he'd known since their days with Davis: "Bootie was on the top of my list," Blaney said. "They didn't know much about him at that point, but I did, from working with him at Bill Davis. So they spent a month or longer just watching and listening to him on the radio at the Busch races. Once they finally met him face to face they were very impressed, and it was a no brainer."
When Harrah called Barker with the bid, "I had mixed emotions," Barker said. "I was so happy that Dave called me. But it was tough to leave. This is what I want to do, though. And this is such a great opportunity that I couldn't turn it down. I feel very fortunate to be here. This is the top."
There is a bit of a twist to this, though Barker doesn't want to talk about it. He does his work from a wheelchair, because he's paralyzed from the waist down, from an accident when he was 17. But most men on the NASCAR tour don't give it a second thought anymore, because Barker has become a familiar figure in the Winston Cup garage over the past four years since Davis first hired him as a shock specialist.
Barker put in a stint with shocks with Rick Hendrick's #24 team, and returned to Davis' team in late, 2001 to try his hand as crew chief for Wimmer on the Busch tour, a job he performed spectacularly well. Now Barker gets to match wits with the best in the business. And he wants it clear this is no affirmative-action job.
So let's get this out of the way first: Yes, he's sensitive about it, and he insists on being treated just like everyone else in the garage, there will naturally be considerable media interest in his story. Handling the media might be tougher than handling some of his competition.
"I think Bootie will handle it OK," Harrah said. "To be real honest, I've never talked with him about why he's in a wheel chair. Just chronologically when it happened. He is sensitive to talking about it. He doesn't want to be treated any differently than anybody else, and that's the way I treat him. He has no trouble getting around the car, no trouble getting around at the race track. I've not seen one thing that is a chore to him to get done, that anyone else couldn't get done.
"I figure we'll have an aisle around the pit box for him, so he can get around to the monitors and see the replays of the pit stops. But he could very well just sit up on top of the pit box the whole race. We've talked about it, and if you think about it, the crew chief, even if he is up on top of the pit box, can't see very far up and down pit road," Harrah said. "You're not seeing very much of the track. So I don't think it's a disadvantage even if Bootie doesn't want to get up on top of the pit box.
"If he does, we've talked about building a hoist or a jacking system to get him up there. But he said 'Shoot, if I want to go up there, just pull me up.' He said he does most of his work looking at the computer anyway. We work a guy^×Roger White^×in a wheelchair in our shop, and he's been with us five years. He doesn't have any problems getting around a car, so I knew that wouldn't be a problem. I really didn't even give it a consideration.
"We really had the inside scoop on Bootie because Dave had worked with him before at Bill Davis, and we watched him working with Scott on the Busch tour, so we knew something had to be happening there. We watched him the last half of the season, kept a close eye on him, and we were really impressed, winning four of the last eight races was pretty impressive to us.
"We watched him on pit strategy the last four or five races, and I thought he made some real good calls. It's a split-second crapshoot anyway. A lot of times a crew chief won't have but five second to make that call. But he seems to do real good on fuel mileage strategy, and that's a more long-term thought process. However, Ryan was really good on Sundays too, so Bootie will have a tough act to follow. But I think he's up to it.
"There has been a lot of hype about beefing up our engineering staff, but we've been strong in that area all along. We knew he had an engineering degree, but that really wasn't a factor in why I hired him. He seems to have good thought processes. Dave said we needed someone who could look at our geometry and our frames and see where we're off. We've got a good aero program and we're surrounding him with some real good people, so I think he's coming in at a good time for us to turn the corner."
And just where is this team going?
"Well, I'll tell you, there's not a lot we want for," Harrah said. "I think we'll be right where we want to be this year. We've changed a lot of key people and it may take us time to jell. Last season was the first time Jasper Motorsports has been in the top 20, but I wasn't satisfied with that. We wanted to get better. So we've made improvements in several areas, like the pit crew and the aero department. I really think we have a good shot at running consistently in the top 10 this year and get a win or two under our belts.
"Our engineering program has helped us turn the corner, and at least focus on other areas that we know we don't have problems with. I don't use the engineering department to make the car go faster; I use it more to help us with problems we have."
Blaney and Harrah will again be using Ford engines from the Penske shop, even though Penske has switched to Dodge.
"We feel our program is still strong enough, even though their focus won't be on the Ford engine now as much as the Dodge," Harrah said. "We feel we're still enough ahead of the game. And at Daytona the only thing that matters is driver decision-making, and anything can happen on the last lap."
So how does Blaney stack up?
"I've always said that Dave is ahead of our program," Harrah said. "Dave is a great driver, and when we get our program up to speed, we'll definitely be running up in the top five, because that's where his ability is. And I've followed him not just as an owner but from the data acquisition on the track when we're testing, and I don't see anything he does wrong."
Being a crew chief isn't the easiest job in the world under the best conditions. He's the guy wearing the bull's eye.
"Honestly I think I'm just as good as any of these guys out here," said Barker, 31. "There are smart guys in Busch as well; just some of them have chosen to stay down there because the life is a little more forgiving, I guess you'd say.
Now I have respect for all these guys in here, but I don't think any of them are any better than I am. I want to race against the best, and when I'm a member of a team that wins a race I want to know that I've beaten the best. And the only place to do that is here. I've had other opportunities to do Winston Cup before, with other teams, but none I felt as good a fit as here. This seems to be the right fit for me.
"I like Dave's temperament. I don't think the fans or the NASCAR community really knows the Dave Blaney that I see. I just don't think they realize how determined and how good a driver he is. But this year you will see. He's very competitive, and he wants it very bad. He's just quiet about what he does. He doesn't have a lot hoopla. I like his competitive drive, I like his demeanor. He's a nice guy, too, and I like working with nice people."
Actually, the Daytona 500 won't be Barker's first start as a Winston Cup crew chief. That came, unexpectedly, in the fall of 2000 when rain washed out an ARCA race at Atlanta and Davis quickly subbed Wimmer and Barker into Sunday's field. They led nine laps early in the race and finished 22nd.
Blaney, who said he like the upside potential of this team, the reason he declined to accept offers to move on, made the push to hire Barker.
"I think Bootie's strong points are in the suspension side of things - the front suspension mostly," Blaney said. "That's where a lot of it is at these days. The aero stuff is becoming so tight from make to make and car to car because the templates have everything narrowed down. From the worst car to the best car on the track there's not much difference, so it's coming down to suspension stuff.
"The tires are not much of a variable anymore. They go and go and go, so you have to get that thing handling right and at the right attitude, and I feel that's his strong point and that's what's going to take us forward."
Into the top 15 in the points: "We weren't that far away from that last year."
And more: "I honestly think we can pop up and win a race," Blaney said. "Do I think we can run in the top five every week? Probably not. But we're gaining towards that. We want to stack up as many top 10s as we can, and when you can consistently do that, then you can work forward."
Speed, he said, will be key.
"We just have to be faster from start to finish. There were a lot of races where we would be as fast as the leader for 100 or 200 miles, but it was only for that segment. Overall we weren't good enough for the entire race. Being off just a little bit here and there will put you 15th.
"I feel like this team has just a huge up side. Doug Bawel, Mark Wallace and Mark Harrah (the three #77 Jasper team owners) have gone above and beyond during the off season. Our engine program is super.
"But we also strengthened our team with some different people. I'm excited about Bootie as crew chief and having Pat Marshall back in the shop, plus all the new guys we've got going over the wall. I'm going to be real surprised if we don't run a lot better."
**Redistributed with Permission--By Mike Mulhern (Winston-Salem Journal--1/12/03)