Perserverence pays off; Blaney, ...
Perserverence pays off; Blaney, #77 Jasper Team post third top-ten finish of season after roller-coaster night at Richmond.
Dave Blaney will remember the long, hot summer of 2002 as one which delivered almost weekly doses of potential and possibilities, followed by crushing disappointment and ill-fate in his first season with the #77 Jasper Engines & Transmissions Ford team.
During the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Blaney and the young #77 Jasper team finally enjoyed good luck on what had been an average night on-track, earning their third top-ten finish of the season (ninth) after struggling through much of the last-half of the 400-lap event with an ever-tightening race-car.
After starting a season-best third in a back-up car, Blaney ran at the front through the first quarter of the race, avoiding problems during a plague of six caution periods (of ten total) that sidelined current NASCAR Winston Cup Series point leader Sterling Marlin, four-time WC champion Jeff Gordon and perennial Richmond contenders Jeff Burton and Terry Labonte among others.
But Blaney slipped high in Turn 3 attempting to pass the lapped car of Kyle Petty on Lap 88, dropping seven spots (to 11th) as began to feel drastic changes in the #77 Jasper Ford, including a possible brake problem that surfaced as an unidentified vibration.
Blaney faded into the middle teens in the field as he searched for a kinder line around the .750-mile semi-oval, but went down two laps to an unusual group of lead-pack cars (including substitute Greg Biffle, Kenny and Mike Wallace and home-state native Hermie Sadler) that had pitted out-of-sequence when the night's seventh caution-flag fell just after the #77 Jasper Ford had made it's scheduled pit-stop for service.
And although Crew Chief Ryan Pemberton had made gains to help Blaney with his car during the previous 100 laps, it took almost 50 laps for Blaney to regain his lead-lap status (Lap 253), when Johnny Benson slapped the Turn 4 wall and brought out the eighth caution of the race.
Now the last of 23 cars on the lead-lap, the #77 Jasper Ford never regained its early-race speed, but did benefit from a flurry of pit-stops by and problems for other lead-lap cars in the final 10 miles, moving up ten positions in the closing laps to finish ninth, one lap down to race-winner Matt Kenseth and now four-time runner-up Ryan Newman, the best-finishing Penske-Jasper Engine-powered entry.
"We just struggled most of the night, but we'll sure take ninth, because we've had top-ten cars almost all summer and haven't had much luck coming home with finishes that reflect that," said Blaney. "It's good for that to go the other way tonight. We were actually pretty good the first quarter of the race and stayed pretty consistent. We could kind of hang there with them, but I just kept getting tighter and tighter and we couldn't get it free enough.
"We got caught on that pit stop in the middle of the race and got a laps down. It took us a while to get it back, but still, at the end, we weren't very good and certainly weren't going to run with the top-ten cars at the finish. We just made it on fuel, but that counts, because the teams that came up short didn't have that figured right. I was running around there half-throttle for the last 10 laps and made it.
"The whole weekend turned out to be a good one, with our team coming back from the problems (wrecked primary-car in practice) to qualify our best of the season (third), then hanging in there tonight and getting something for it. Too many days this summer, it's been just the opposite."
For the second straight week and fourth in his rookie season, Newman challenged for his first win, but couldn't catch Kenseth, who rebounded from two flat right-front tires early in the race to win for the fourth time this season. "We had a good car, no doubt, but I saw that when Matt got down a lap and he came and fought for his lap back that he had an awesome race car, said Newman, now tenth in the Winston Cup standings only 33 points behind Kenseth and Ricky Rudd (tied for eighth). Those guys with the #17 team did a good job repairing it or whatever they had to do to get back on the lead lap and Matt did an awesome job of driving it back to the front.
"We had good pit stops and good strategy. We had everything working our way but we just came up a little short tonight. You can't ask for much more than that I guess. Like most everyone else at the end, we were on fumes, but you do all you can and hope the car picks up everything it can. Luckily, it did tonight.
"I knew it was gonna be hectic there at one point when we only had nine cars on the lead lap and the leader was restarting about 15th or 16th, whatever it was there. I knew we were gonna have problems there and, unfortunately, it took (then-leader) Michael Waltrip out. I don't know whose fault it was, but that was the scary part was once you get back there and you've got all those guys fighting to get their lap back. They tend to drive a little bit rougher and, luckily, we didn't get caught up in anything but it was close a few a times." Rusty Wallace appeared on his way to another brilliant Richmond effort in his Penske-Jasper-powered Ford after driving to the front early from his 23rd-place starting position, but--like Blaney last weekend at Darlington--the #2 Miller team suffered two flat tires, one early and one with only 13 laps to go.
"Man, it's sickening, the luck we've had lately," said Wallace, who finished 15th. "Early in the race I had a right-front go down, so I put some more air back in the tire and ran. Then we got back out and I was fighting to try and get back with the lead group. I was trying to run Kenseth down and win that race, get that Winston million (No-Bull 5 bonus) and, son of a gun, if it doesn't go down again. I felt it about four laps before and I said, 'Oh God, don't let this be again,' and, sure enough, it went down. It's just sickening, man. I tell you what, I thought it was gonna be a second place for sure and never believed we were gonna lose a tire."
Ironically, the evening was a good one in the points standings for Wallace, Newman and Blaney. Marlin finished last after his early crash and now leads Wallace (now sixth) by only 146 points entering next weekend's race at New Hampshire. Marlin's point lead was reduced to nine points over now-runner-up Mark Martin and 72 over third-place Jimmie Johnson. Newman moved up to tenth, with his series-leading 12th top-five finish of the season.
Blaney made the biggest gains of the PJE trio, moving up three positions in both the WC driver's (19th) and owners (20th) point standings, now trailing 18th-place Bobby Labonte by 96 points. Only 34 points separate Blaney from 23rd-place Terry Labonte, who finished 41st at Richmond.