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‘Blick’ Wowed ‘Em Early In ’09

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2010
Matt Kenseth's victory in last year's Daytona 500 came with his car under a protective cover. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Matt Kenseth's victory in last year's Daytona 500 came with his car under a protective cover and a new man on the pitbox. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It was two races into the 2009 Sprint Cup season and Drew Blickensderfer had gone from being the new guy with the funny name to a history-making crew chief with an impressive nickname.

He had won point-paying Cup races the first two times he climbed atop a pitbox and one of those races was NASCAR’s biggie. Yep, he was undefeated and seemingly out of nowhere, the former college wrestler had suddenly become “Mr. Perfect”.

Of course the reality of the what-have-you-done-lately? nature of auto racing would soon relegate Blickensderfer to a statistical footnote and strip him of the nickname, but the then-32-year-old from Decatur, Ill., will always have Daytona 2009. And how sweet was that?

“Walking to Victory Lane was so special,” Blickensderfer said this week. “It was more special than standing there getting your picture taken in Victory Lane. That walk and seeing everybody congratulate you was a neat time.”

Blickensderfer probably could have been forgiven had he had pratfalled in his first two races. He was going to work for a team that had become one of the top combos in the series. With Kenseth driving and Robbie Reiser on the box, it had won the 2003 Cup championship.

Blickensderfer? He had spent the 2006, ’07 and ’08 seasons crew chiefing for Roush Fenway drivers in the Nationwide series. He had guided Danny O’Quinn to Nationwide Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors in ’06 and then worked with Kenseth and Carl Edwards in the series the next two years.

First up for him in Cup was Speed Weeks 2009.

Things did not start well for Blickensderfer and his team. They wrecked a car in the Budweiser Shootout the weekend before the 500, and they wrecked a second car during their 150-mile qualifying race a couple days later.

And then it was mega decision time for the newbie crew chief.

“So we’re down two cars,” Blickensderfer said. “We had the back-up car or you have the option to come out with your Bud Shootout car, and that was the point when I knew I was the leader. No matter what Matt said, I was the one that was going to have to make this decision.”

And an unpopular decision it was.

“I remember standing with Matt after the 150 looking at our wrecked race car.  He said, ‘You’re bringing down the Bud Shootout car to be our 500 primary car, right?’  And I said, ‘No, I’m pulling the one off the truck that’s our back-up. It’ll be ready to go tomorrow for practice. That’s the car we’re racing.’  And he said, ‘That’s a terrible decision. That car hasn’t been on the race track. Our Shootout car was just fine. Get it fixed and bring it back up here.’  And I said, ‘Matt, we just got it fixed. It’s coming back up here, but it’s going be the back-up. We’re going to take the car on the truck.’ I don’t think he liked that decision, but he didn’t know all the information I did.

“So I made that decision, but I remember going home that evening saying, ‘Oh no, I just made Matt mad. He’s a superstar in the sport and a champion, and I’m this rookie crew chief that just put his foot down the first week of the year. This might be a long year.’ “

It was certainly a long race day for the 17 Roush Fenway team and its young signal-caller.

At Daytona, on-track positions can change en mass every lap. Track conditions can change every other lap. Crew chiefs don’t have time to blow their noses.

And on and on it goes for hour after hour. It’s tough on the veterans of the sport. For a rookie crew chief, the Daytona 500 can be overwhelming.

For Blickensderfer, a former college wrestler, it was merely “nerve-wracking”.

“But I don’t think I was as nervous as I expected mainly because I was so new to it,” he said. “This Cup thing, it consumes you, so you don’t have time to sit back and realize, ‘I might get overwhelmed or what could be or this could happen.’  You don’t get to focus on that because you’re looking over notes and you’re talking to your engineers and you’re talking to the driver and you’re talking to other crew chiefs.”

“You’re so consumed with your race car that you don’t think about the grand scheme of things, so before the race I was a little nervous. I don’t want to have an opportunity to win the race and make a bad decision on pit road or run out of fuel or do something like that, so those things cross your mind, but I think the aspect of Sunday Cup racing being so big and so consuming, it doesn’t give you time to think about other things to get nervous, so it probably wasn’t as bad then as what it probably looked like from the outside.”

Kenseth started at the back of the field because of the change to the backup car. That was OK as it allowed the team to pit early in the race, work on the car and experiment with tire strategies.

It wasn’t long before Blickensderfer knew he had a car capable of winning.

“From early in the race on we ran in the top 10 and there were three or four cars where I thought, ‘OK, we’re going to have to contend with these three or four cars at the end of the race,’ ” Blickensderfer said, “ ‘and all three or four of them got wiped out in the big wreck that we barely missed.’ So late in the race when we were running in the top three, the cars around us weren’t as fast as we were and I knew it. I knew it was just a matter of time before we could take off.”

The forecast for race day was for rain and for once, the Weather Channel got it right. And for the 17 team, they got it right at the the perfect time.

On lap 152 of the scheduled 200-lap race, the 500 was red flagged and the cars were brought into the pits.

And it was Kenseth who had put himself at the front of the field just before the cars headed onto pit road.

“When they stopped the race I was 99 percent sure they were going to call it,” Blickensderfer said. “There was enough rain for long enough that I was like, ‘Hey, there’s no way we’re going to restart this with the moisture in the air.’  In Daytona at that time of year it was going to be hard to dry that track, so when they stopped the race and you’re out there on pit road you’re cautiously optimistic that, hey, this is it.”

But there was still what seemed to the team, a very long wait before the race was officially called.

“We were waiting there forever, it seemed like,” Blickensderfer said. “And when they called the race I remember standing next to Matt and telling him, ‘Hey, they just called the race. You just won the Daytona 500.’

And a week later, Blickensderfer and Kenseth won again; at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

In Victory Lane there, Kenseth and Jack Roush and a whole lot of other people celebrated the fact that Blickensderfer had become the first crew chief to win his first two Cup races. And they all joked about going undefeated for they season and perhaps forever.

And out came the nickname.

The joking all died away quickly when Kenseth finished dead last at Las Vegas the next race. And the season turned very long as the team would not win again.

Blickensderfer? He was took his lumps and has moved forward.

“After you win the race it’s kind of a feeling like, ‘It wasn’t that hard.’  Then you go the next week and win at California, but six months later I kept thinking to myself, ‘I wish I could have Daytona back again.’ You want to grasp Victory Lane and winning the biggest race of your life over again,” he said.

“This year, I’m looking at Daytona differently. It’s bigger than it was last year for me. It’s an event that I’ll definitely put more hard work and look forward to more because I realized how quick that went by and how you want to win it again. It’s like you got to taste a little bit of that sweetness and you want more and more and more, so I’m definitely addicted to winning at Daytona and I definitely hope I get that chance again.”

And pick up a new nickname.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, January 28 2010
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