JOLIET, IL. -- Dave Blaney and the ...
JOLIET, IL. -- Dave Blaney and the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford reinforced an atmosphere of optimism with his team for this weekend's Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway with a season-best seventh-place qualifying effort for Sunday's second NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at the 1.5-mile oval.
In addition, the three Penske-Jasper Engine-powered Fords--building on the momentum of last weekend's race-long run at the front of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona--each qualified in the top-ten for Sunday's race at Chicago, the first time this season that has been accomplished by the trio.
With his second pole position of the 2002 season, Ryan Newman--the pole winner for last year's inaugural NASCAR Busch Series race at Chicagoland--was today's fastest qualifier (29.500 secs.), while Blaney (seventh--29.741 secs.) and Rusty Wallace (eighth--29.747 secs.) will occupy Row 4 on the starting grid.
Rounding out the top-ten were Kurt Busch on the outside pole beside Newman, an all-Dodge second row of Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin, Pepsi 400 winner Michael Waltrip in fifth, Tony Stewart in sixth, then Blaney and Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in ninth and Joe Nemechek in tenth.
In last year's inaugural event at Chicagoland, the #77 Jasper Ford--with Robert Pressley as driver--closed fast late in the race to finish second behind Kevin Harvick, a career-best finish for both driver and team. The outstanding 2001 performance at Chicagoland as well as a decided momentum with the current #77 Jasper team/driver over the past 10 weeks led Crew Chief Ryan Pemberton and his crew to highlight this event as a possible break-through for the young team.
"When I think back about last year's race at Chicago, it's a good feeling to know how well the weekend went for us, but--for a driver, team and crew chief who have never won a race--I wonder if we should have done more to try to get that first win for everyone," said Pemberton. "(Kevin) Harvick had dominated the later stages of the race, but we were closing fast at the end.
"I'm in the best situation I've been in as a crew chief to win a race (with Blaney) since the first year I worked with Ernie Irvan (1998). He's the only driver I've worked with (in 185 starts--eight drivers) who's won a race, but Ernie was driving hurt much of the time and we never had him for a full season (at the #36 MB2 team) so I probably wasn't even where I am now with Dave.
"It's takes a while to learn what a driver needs in the cars we build for him, what he's capable of on the track with our group, what kind of decisions are going to rattle him. We're just getting to learn that about Dave now and he's really been responding. Chicago is a place that has all the things that are positive right now for this team--the right history, the right motor program, the kind of track the driver has thrived on and a lot of momentum going in. Now we've got a good starting spot and we'll see how the rest of it comes together."
Until late in the qualifying session, it appeared that Blaney had a chance to match his career-best NASCAR Winston Cup Series start (third), but the effort was neverthless a good start to a weekend filled with Chicago Hope.
"We just chased the car a little bit in practice," said Blaney. "We weren't real happy with it. Right at the end of practice we made a pretty good lap, and thought we could go from there. Actually, I was a little surprised with that lap, that was a little faster than I thought we could go, but it was really good. The car turned good, and the motor ran great, and a good starting spot for us."
Newman, the pole-winner at California in April, posted the second-fastest practice speed in the two-hour session before qualifying, labeling him as a potential pole-winner along with Nemechek, Jeff Gordon (a disappointing 15th) and last year's pole winner Todd Bodine, also the fastest qualifier for the second-ever NASCAR Busch Series race at Chicagoland.
"It doesn't matter what track it is, if you're fast in practice, no matter where you're at, it's always tough to back it up," said South Bend, IN. native Newman. "It's difficult because conditions change and the way the air affects these cars so much anymore, it changes a lot. Fortunately, we were able to duplicate and make it a little bit better. I messed up my second lap pretty big, but the first lap is the one that counted for us."
"For me, it's a fun race track. It's really fast, it's got pretty good bankings, so the car sticks pretty good so you can just run the car really hard, and it's fun. We had a pretty good run today, in practice as well as qualifying, obviously, but Nemechek looked like, for sure, the one to beat.
"I guess different drivers have different styles, and this place, you kind of got to keep the speed up in the corners. There's an ideal way to drive a race track like this, as there is Charlotte, as there is Phoenix, as there is Loudon, and I think that I've adapted really well to that situation here."
Only 22nd on the practice rundown prior to qualifying, Wallace made perhaps the biggest gain of any of the eventual top-ten qualifiers, nearly matching his practice speed on Lap 1 of his two-lap qualifying effort before cutting almost three-tenths--a substantial improvement at Chicago--on the lap that propelled him into the final top-ten.
"We changed so many things in practice. I figured, 'This is better, that was better,' but we never able to put it all into one package," said Wallace, who enters the race ranked fourth in the WC standings and first in overall miles-completed for the 2002 season."In qualifying, we put it all in that one package and went for it. With one run, with older tires, the left-front spring was better, and the next run the right-front spring was better, track bar, wedge, a shock, or whatever. But, when I went to qualify everything was there and hopefully it was all going to work, and it did."