NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett has been lavished with honor and praise, patted on the back, given standing ovations, and lodged in a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria which he said was "bigger than the first house I lived in." He has been driven around New York City in a limousine, appeared on national television shows, media-blitzed and presented a postseason awards check in the amount of $3,040,767, swelling his '99 earnings to $6.649 million. It seems appropriate to mention that Jarrett earned $35 for Ninth Place in his first race, at Hickory (North Carolina) Speedway in 1977, and that Ned Jarrett, his father, grossed about $14,000 total for winning the 1961 and 1965 crowns.
All these spoils and perks of winning the richest and most prestigious championship in motorsports, of reaching the pinnacle of America's fastest growing sport, Jarrett and his irrepressible Robert Yates Racing #88 Ford team have committed to fresh memory, to be etched in time immemorial. But the final championship celebrations of the century and the pity parties of those less fortunate are over. Reality has returned. A new season has arrived. The slate is clean. The start is fresh. Hope and faith are renewed. There is another championship, richer and more prestigious perhaps, to be won in the new millennium. The question is not who will contend; it's which one will reach the summit of Stock car racing's Mount Everest?
A Bumpy TrackBut first, if there is a theme to Jarrett's story, it is inspiration to others. And Lord knows those who have been turned back at the threshold and others who haven't come close can use all the inspiration they can get. Jarrett's thinking is that goals can be reached through hard work and dedication, that you can do and be anything you want in America. Granted, though, the circumstances must be right and the planets astrologically aligned.
Jarrett, 43, needed 23 years to get to the top after competing in that first minor-league race at the bullring near his Newton, North Carolina, birthplace. Although he excelled in golf, football, baseball, and basketball in high school, the thrill of racing was unlike anything he had experienced and left no question of what he wanted to do for a living. At first, Ned Jarrett discouraged his son because he didn't want him to go through the hard times he had endured, but Ned and Martha ultimately supported their son's decision. The Jarretts had the name but not a silver spoon, unlike what many people perceived; but now they're justly proud of Winston Cup's second father-son champions.
Jarrett is a good man, a gentleman, with strong faith, character, and family and spiritual values, which he attributes to his parents with enrichment from Joe Gibbs and Motor Racing Outreach, the track ministry. Jarrett is a genuine role model, not a model that plays a role. He is a splendid ambassador to the sport, as is his father, who is retiring as the best TV analyst in motorsports. Jarrett is a family man, devoted to his wife, Kelley, their three children, and his son, Jason, 24, a third-generation racer. Kelley has laughed and cried, agonized and celebrated with her husband every step of the way. Also, Jarrett gives unselfishly of himself and to a number of worthy causes.
Typical of most eventual champions, Jarrett's early struggles were filled with heartache and disappointment. Doors opened and closed. Trying to get a grip on Winston Cup in 1989, Jarrett was released by owner Cale Yarborough for lack of sponsorship. The break of his career came when the Wood Brothers called in 1990 and led Jarrett to his first win in 1991, edging Davey Allison by inches at Michigan. Ironically, Allison drove the Robert Yates-owned Ford that Jarrett would eventually inherit.
It wasn't until Jarrett won the 1993 Daytona 500 (passing Dale Earnhardt on the final lap) and finished fourth in points for Joe Gibbs' second-year team that he really gained credentials and clout. In 1995, though, after a tough decision to join Robert Yates to replace Ernie Irvan, recuperating from near-fatal injuries, Jarrett went backward, eliciting boos from fans spoiled by the #28 car and the team's lofty reputation. It was a no-win situation for Jarrett personally. He expected to be fired, and Yates considered it after a lackluster season by the owner's standards. However, Yates, assessing the growing trend toward multicar teams, reconsidered, established the #88 team, and kept Jarrett.
"It's one of the smartest decisions I've ever made," says Yates emphatically. Jarrett certainly seconds that. The #88 Ford Quality Care team has been remarkable since it unloaded in 1996, and Jarrett won his second Daytona 500, again holding off Earnhardt. Led by rookie crew chief Todd Parrott, the team won four races, adding the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis; they also ranked third in points. Parrott inherited the racing genes of his father, Buddy, and had been a chassis specialist for Rusty Wallace, sharing the latter's '89 championship. But he had never been a team leader. In 1997, the team won seven times and was runner-up in points. There were three more wins and another third in points in 1998.
According To PlanWinning the '99 championship was a plan, not an afterthought. After the '98 season, team principals Jarrett, Parrott, Yates, and his son, engine specialist Doug Yates, evaluated what they had done and what they could do to win the championship. They had watched young Jeff Gordon win three titles and Hendrick Motorsports win four in a row. Points, not victories, were given top priority. It appeared the best-laid plan had gone awry when Jarrett crashed out of the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 37th. But that turned out to be the team's only DNF, and they finished in the 30s only once in the next 33 races of a dream season.
Jarrett took the points lead in the season's 11th race with a victory at Richmond and seldom looked back, extending the margin as high as 314 points, clinching the inaugural Winston Cup race at Homestead-Miami and winning by a commanding 201 points over Bobby Labonte. Jarrett gave a clinic on how to use a system that, simply stated, demands and rewards consistency. Jarrett used his talent and equipment superbly. "I'm not the most talented driver out there," he says. "Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt are more talented, so I have to work harder to utilize best what I have." If victory was out of reach, he made darn sure he came home in the top 5 or 10. Three other competitors won more races than Jarrett's four-Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Bobby Labonte.
But Jarrett logged an amazing 24 top 5s, 29 top 10s, and an average finish of 6.7. The average finish, an obscure statistic, is telling in a championship grind. Generally, an 8 or lower will get you a championship. By comparison, Bobby Labonte compiled an average finish score of 9, and Third-Place Martin earned 9.35. Gordon, in spite of his circuit-leading seven wins, skied to 12.9.
"I get most of the credit because I'm called the Winston Cup champion," Jarrett says, "but really, I'm the lucky guy who got to sit behind the wheel of the incredible cars and engines Todd and Doug and their guys gave me. We had no mechanical failures." At the team's '98 Christmas party, Jarrett had given each member a card that read, "It's amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."
Jarrett and Robert Yates' first champion-ship is exceedingly popular and richly deserved. Jarrett had not considered winning a championship until he came to Yates. It wasn't a vision. "I felt I would have had a better chance jumping off the Empire State Building and living than winning a championship," he says. Yates was incredulous, even when the title was wrapped up.
Jarrett says he wanted to win the championship most for Yates, whose 11 years as a car owner were tear-stained by the tragic death of Davey Allison in a '93 helicopter crash and the terrible injuries to Irvan. Allison was running fifth, where he needed to finish to win the championship, in the '92 finale at Atlanta, but collided with a car driven, ironically, by Irvan. In 1994, Irvan stood second in points when he crashed #28 in practice at Michigan.
Going For TwoCan Jarrett and #88 repeat? Sure they can. The team is intact, and the 2000 Taurus should be as good or better than the '99. Yates has added five pit crewmembers that departed Gordon's team, but whether this will have a positive or negative effect remains to be seen. Jarrett is one of the eldest champions, and there may not be too many more opportunities, although he's never been in better physical condition. He looks fit enough to return to the quarterback position at Hickory High.
Ricky Rudd, having taken over #28, makes Yates a double threat to repeat. A 23-year veteran, Rudd has cracked the top 10 in points for 16 of the past 20 seasons. Although his series record of at least one win per season came to an end at 16 years, he's a proven winner and appears to be in the best position to win his first title.
Other leading challengers include Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt. With the dynamic duo of Bobby Labonte and Stewart, Joe Gibbs Racing may have the edge. In terms of wins and points, Bobby Labonte was almost three times as good last season as in 1998. Stewart was sensational, the season's biggest surprise while rewriting the rookie record book with three wins and fourth in points. Chevrolet and Ford competitors grouse about the Pontiac having an aerodynamic advantage. It's not the car; it's vastly improved teams.
A first title for Martin and Roush Racing is past due. Martin is truly the sentimental favorite after finishing in the top six in points for 11 consecutive years, including runner-up twice. The fitness guru drove hurt much of last season, but the injuries from a crash have healed, and much of the pain from a chronic back ailment has been relieved by surgery. Hey, maybe that's an omen. Perhaps off-season surgery is a ticket to the championship. Remember Jarrett's highly publicized gall bladder operation after the '98 season? Who wouldn't give a gall bladder for a championship?
Roush's Burton, the best young driver of record behind Gordon, is a champion-ship waiting to happen. His six wins in 1999, four more than in 1998, ranked second to Gordon, and he finished in the top five in points a third straight year. Burton, like Martin, lacked the prime ingredient: consistency.
Gordon, even with the most wins and seven poles, had an off season by his standards, not unexpected given that he had dominated with 33 victories and two of his three titles in the three previous seasons. Gordon's '99 bid was in trouble after the first third of the season, and he played catch-up to finish sixth in points. In the first 12 races, Gordon fell victim to five of six DNFs and five of eight finishes in the 30s or 40s, in spite of his second Daytona 500 victory among two others. The sudden departure of crew chief Ray Evernham and the turmoil surrounding the Hendrick Motorsports flagship was another blow. Back-to-back victories made Evernham's absence appear insignificant and successor Brian Whitesell look like a genius, but the team struggled to only two 10th-Place finishes in the remaining five races. In the off-season, Whitesell was promoted to team manager and veteran Robbie Loomis, a top wrench at Petty Enterprises for a decade, came aboard as crew chief. Look for Gordon to rebound. Exactly how far, though, is questionable.
Earnhardt embarrassed those who had relegated him to a rocking chair. At 48, The seven-time champion made an amazing comeback, winning three races-two touchdowns and a dropkick (at Bristol)-for the first time since 1995 and improved a position, to seventh, in points. He also bore a striking resemblance to the Intimidator of old, restoring bragging rights to his army of fans. Don't dare preclude a record eighth crown.
Also give calls to Ward Burton and Bill Davis Racing, the only single-car team to finish in the top 10 in points; to Rusty Wallace, who extended his winning streak to a circuit-leading 14 straight years but slipped four spots in points; and to Terry Labonte. The two-time champ dropped from 6th to 12th in points with one win. But he is reunited with crew chief Gary DeHart, who led the #5 Hendrick Motorsports team to the '96 championship.
Much of the appeal and allure of Winston Cup racing, however, is its fickle unpredictability.