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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Dave Blaney

Dave Blaney Age: 44
0 wins, 1 top 5, 2 top 10's, 4 top 15's
Avg Start: 28.3 Avg finish 24.4

#22 Caterpillar Toyota Crew Chief: Kevin Hamlin

With seven full-time Toyota cars in 2007, who will be most successful? There is Brian Vickers, a young driver with potential. There is former Winston Cup Champ Dale Jarrett. What about established veterans Jeremy Mayfield and Michael Waltrip? Believe it or not, the most successful season just might come from Dave Blaney.

Blaney is the only Toyota driver inside the top 35 in owner points. Bill Davis Racing is also the only Toyota outfit with Cup experience. Neither Michael Waltrip Racing nor Red Bull have competed at the Cup level. Both will experience growing pains in their debuts. That leaves Blaney as the driver with the greatest chance to consistently run well for Toyota.

For the past three seasons BDR has fought legal issues with Dodge, while trying to remain competitive at the Cup level. In this context, Blaney had a pretty solid season. If there was an award for getting the most out of his equipment, Blaney would win. He ranked fifth in laps completed at 98.3%. His cars weren't always fast, but Blaney maximized his finishes. He scored a the car's first top five since the opening race of 2004. He also laid a foundation for improvement in 2007.

Most of the season Blaney survived races and avoided trouble. He only had two DNF's, but his equipment limited him to runing in the 20's and 30's. The first sign of progress was a three race stretch in July. He finished 17th (Chicago), 13th (Loudon) and 16th (Pocono). This was part of a run where he finished on the lead lap in 8 of 10 races. Things got even better in September. He ran exceptionally well at Richmond with a season high 108.7 driver rating and a fourth place finish. For an underfunded team, it was practically a victory. He followed up with a ninth place finish at Loudon and a 12th at Dover.

While moral victories are nice, Blaney finally broke through at the NASCAR level in October. He won a wild Busch race at Lowe's, holding off Matt Kenseth and displaying some serious car control. His first win in NASCAR's top three levels was overshadowed by Kevin Harvick clinching the Busch championship. It still capped an impressive fall for Blaney. It could make for an even better 2007.

For the first season since 2003, BDR gets manufacturer support. BDR is already the premiere Truck organization, backed by Toyota. Getting any support at the Cup level will elevate performance, but Toyota's funding could be enormous. Blaney also welcomes a new teammate for 2007. Michael Waltrip was technically a teammate last year, but he basically consumed cars, resources and owner points. Jeremy Mayfield will drive the #36 BDR car in 2007. Mayfield spent the fall testing cars for BDR. This will help deepen the data pool for both teams. Both drivers have tested the Car of Tomorrow, which is the great unknown for every team. Will BDR's success in the truck series translate to the boxier, heavier CofT?

Blaney will also race full-time in the Busch series for Braun racing in '06. It's his first full Busch season since 1999. While most Cup drivers have reduced their full-time Busch efforts, it makes sense for Toyota teams to get more track time in the new Camry. There will no doubt be wrinkles to iron out in the brand new car. Blaney certainly doesn't need the seat time that a rookie would, but racking up a few top fives or another win in the Busch series never hurts.

With his dirt track background it is not surprising Blaney's strength is tracks where car control is a necessity. Darlington, Richmond, Loudon and Phoenix are all places that Blaney can run well. His best average finish is at Homestead where he had a top ten in 2005. After bouncing around for the past four years from BDR, Jasper, RCR and back to BDR, 2007 grants Blaney some stability. He is finally in the same ride for more than one season. Blaney finished 26th in points in 2006. It is not crazy to think he could crack the top 20. Toyota has several higher profile drivers, but Blaney is the one people will talk about if Toyota has success in 2007.

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