The Nextel Cup series has 18 of 36 races in the books.
By JOHN BASSETTI
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
HERMITAGE, Pa. — It was hard not to notice the colorful sideshow on the north side of East State Street Monday evening.
In front of the Mel Grata Toyota showroom were a shiny black tractor-trailer, a yellow and black race car and an FM radio station mascot in bright froggy colors.
It represented the visual part of Dave Blaney’s appearance to promote the Toyota line at the western Pennsylvania dealership.
Inside, a queue of fans curled around waiting for the NASCAR’s Nextel Cup driver’s autograph.
In a sense, the hoopla is exactly 1⁄43rd of the Nextel series because 43 cars are entered in each race.
Boost for team, Toyota
The Hartford native got a confidence boost recently when he captured the pole position in New Hampshire, but then finished 29th because of brake issues and tight handling.
However, it represented Toyota’s first pole in the Nextel Cup.
“It was a good accomplishment for the whole [Bill Davis Racing] team and for Toyota,” Blaney said. “It’s proof that we are making the cars better, that if we get that car right, we can run at the front. We all know that, but, sometimes, we need to be reminded of it, so that was a big confidence booster.”
During last weekend’s Pepsi 500, Blaney’s No. 22 Caterpillar was running seventh before he got tangled up with the No. 38 car of David Gilliland.
“It did just enough damaged to mine that we had to pit and fix it. I just couldn’t get back to the front, but we had a good car that got better as the night unfolded. I thought we were primed for a good finish, but it got ruined.”
Blaney finished 23rd.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pending move to Hendrick Motorsports after this season surprised Blaney.
“Just looking in from the outside, I thought he’d stay. Overall, though, it’s probably a great move for him.”
Also in the Pepsi 500, Kevin Harvick finished 34th after tangling with Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 56.
In a report, Harvick suggested — not too politely — that Montoya should consider returning to Formula One racing.
“For a rookie, he’s doing a great job – unbelievably good,” Blaney said of Montoya. “Most of the time when he goes to these tracks, he’s never seen them before. He’s been very competitive. Yeah, he’s gotten in a little bit of trouble, but it’s been for trying too hard. You can’t get real mad about that. Everybody goes through that.”
There was no testing for Blaney for the Sheetrock 400 in Joliet, Ill., this weekend.
“That [Chicagoland Speedway] is similar to some of the other tracks we run, so we’ll just go with a Michigan-like car and hope for the best.”
Blaney is 36th in the owner’s points standings, so every week’s qualifying session is critical.
“The main thing is for us to go and qualify on Friday. That’s the battle right now. That’s first and foremost every week — to survive Friday and do the best we can on Sunday. We need to finish races and pile up points.
“We are one car out and more points out than I like. It’s going to take multiple races to get back in. We need a couple of really good finishes and a little help from the guys in front of us to have a couple bad races and we’ll be right back in it.”
Blaney is doing well in the Busch Series and currently stands fourth in points.
“We’ve had mostly really fast cars in the Busch series, so we’re satisfied with that,” he said.
Some satisfied autograph seekers included Chuck Forrest and his 7-year-old daughter, Krysta, of Warren.
They arrived an hour early and were first in line.
“I told him that I’m very proud of the way he drives,” the 38-year-old Forrest said. “You can’t finish in the top 10 in every race, but, as long as he does his best that’s what counts.”
Walter Carpenter, who is also Krysta’s principal at Bascom Elementary in Leavittsburg, talked to Blaney, too.
“I’ve known his family for a long time,” said Carpenter, who said he raced go-karts with Dave Blaney, his brother, Dale, and Tommy Quarterson in the 1970s.
Holding a T-shirt that she secured in 1995 — but got autographed by Blaney Monday — was Kelli Rasch of Mercer.
Pictured on Rasch’s shirt were the big-block modified cars of Dave Blaney’s father, Lou, Dale Blaney and Buddy Cochran.
Standing alongside Rasch was her friend, Wes Cramer of Mercer, who used to help Cochran in the pits.
Cramer said he showed Dave Blaney photos from an exhibition race when Tony Stewart visited Sharon Speedway a few years ago.
Cramer’s neighbor, 16-year-old Donald “Buck” Buchanan, was the final member of the visiting trio in the Grata parking lot.
Buchanan, a junior at Grove City High School, said his uncle, John Buchanan, used to race at Sharon, Mercer Raceway Park and Tri-City.