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Same Daytona, but different role for Blickensderfer

January 15, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Testing mishaps fail to temper optimism on No. 31 team with new crew chief

Daytona International Speedway is where the No. 6 team of Roush Fenway Racing enjoyed its greatest moment of the 2011 season. David Ragan won the July 400-miler at NASCAR's most famous track, delivering a long-awaited first career Sprint Cup victory that allowed him to celebrate among Independence Day weekend fireworks, and -- for a little while, at least -- gave his program hopes of crashing the Chase.

The crew chief from that team, Drew Blickensderfer, returned to Daytona for this week's Preseason Thunder test session, but in a different capacity. Blickensderfer is now crew chief for another team, the No. 31 of Jeff Burton at Richard Childress Racing. The No. 6 has effectively been idled as a full-time operation, although Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will pilot a car bearing that number in the Daytona 500. And Ragan was notably absent from the test, having yet to secure a new ride after being released from Roush soon after his former team shut down.

Some crewmen from that outfit landed with the No. 16 of Roush driver Greg Biffle, while others were let go. It was a difficult finale for a group that felt it had just found its footing as a race team, only to see the program shuttered after UPS went elsewhere and left them without sponsorship. At last year's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Blickensderfer remembers he was "99 percent sure" that the team would be shut down, which led him to search for something else.

"Honestly, if there had been a 6 car [this] year, there's a chance I would have been at Roush for my career. I didn't want to go somewhere else."


Thunder Speeds

Jeff Burton
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"Coming to RCR, everything is different. It's different in a good way, though. I like it."


"Honestly, if there had been a 6 car [this] year, there's a chance I would have been at Roush for my career," Blickensderfer said Saturday, the final day of Preseason Thunder. "I didn't want to go somewhere else. But when the future was up in the air and I had an opportunity to come over here, I jumped on it."

Blickensderfer was fortunate. A three-time race winner on NASCAR's premier circuit -- he also won two events with Matt Kenseth, including the Daytona 500, in 2009 -- he initially worried that he might not be able to find another job as a Sprint Cup crew chief, particularly in a busy offseason that saw several top wrench-turners change teams. But Blickensderfer had known Burton from the driver's stint at Roush, and they also had a personal connection from days spent at Bobby Labonte's quarter-midget track in Salisbury, N.C., where both their sons once raced. Burton needed a crew chief after a postseason shuffle at RCR, so he called Blickensderfer to gauge his interest, and eventually set up a meeting with team owner Childress.

All of which led to Blickensderfer bring outfitted in a new black Caterpillar jacket and RCR cap. For the No. 31 team, it was an active test week, and not always for the right reasons. Burton was involved in a pair of accidents on the race track, damaging the right side of his car after blowing a tire in a pack draft on Friday, and then scraping up the left Saturday after he was caught in the crossfire when Juan Montoya bumped Dale Earnhardt Jr. But those mishaps don't temper the optimism on a team that finished last year with four top-10s in its last five events, and is part of an organization that's been scaled back from four cars to three.

"I think the really nice thing is, when we set out last year's schedule, places that I felt like the cars I worked on struggled, the 31, that seemed to be their better places," Blickensderfer said. "So I think we'll be able to take the stuff that I know, and the stuff they know, and kind of mix them together and be able to be stronger throughout the entire season."

It's clear, though, that Blickensderfer still feels some affinity for his former guys from the No. 6. He's proud that some of them ended up with the No. 16, proud of the progress the program was able to make last season, despite a slide that occurred as it became obvious that the unit would meet its eventual end.

"About halfway through the year, we knew it wasn't getting good," he said. "We hadn't heard [anything] about UPS, so it made it frustrating. Because at one point in the Richmond race, we were in the Chase. The 88 [car of Dale Earnhardt Jr.] was having problems, and it was like, oh my gosh, we're right here. And having momentum, it definitely was tough. I think you could see the last six or seven weeks of the year our performance fell off, and I think a lot of that was knowing the inevitable, everybody knowing what was going to happen. So it was tough. We felt like we had gotten to a level where I was performing better, David was performing better, the pit crew -- and then to see it all go downhill, that was tough."

Blickensderfer said he spoke with Ragan on Friday, and texts him about once a week, and believes his former driver will announce plans for 2012 soon. Ragan asked for and received his release from Roush to pursue the opening in the No. 22 car that became available when Kurt Busch left Penske Racing, a vacancy that was eventually filled by A.J. Allmendinger. Other open seats, like the No. 51 of Phoenix Racing (Busch) and the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports (Aric Almirola), also went to other drivers.

"It was kind of unfortunate, the way it worked out for him, because he had a couple of deals that would probably have been pretty good for him, but he had to hold off because of all the deal with the 22 and all that," Blickensderfer said. "He tried to do what was best for him and his future. It's good to see him be able to get something, because David is getting to the point in his career where he needs to be racing Cup cars. He's fast enough to be racing Cup cars, and he's on the good side of the learning curve now. ... He's racing better, he's doing all the little things better, and he can compete for race wins now. He's more experienced. Whoever picks up David, they won't be on the we-need-to-teach-our driver side. They'll be on the our-driver-can-get-it-done side."

In the meantime, Blickensderfer has his own adjustment to worry about. He was at Roush for nine years, and says the processes at RCR are quite a bit different than those at his old shop. But he also feels rejuvenated by the change.

"Coming to RCR, everything is different. It's different in a good way, though. I like it," he said. "With [vice president for competition] Mike Dillon running the place and Richard there all the time, they do a great job of making it feel like home. When I got down here Thursday, it was probably the most fun I'd had at the race track in quite a while. It was nice to see all the people I had seen before. And I could come in with a smile on my face, because it was the first time Jeff and I got to work together. It was the first time I actually got my hands on a car on the race track. There was definitely some pep in my step. It was nice."