Smiles are coming easier for Dale Jarrett.
Dale Jarrett leads the pack en route to his third career victory at Michigan Speedway. The
Robert Yates (left) and Todd Parrott (right) share a moment with Jarrett in Daytona’s
In title battles in previous years, Jarrett was doing the chasing. Throughout 1999, the fi
One of the most exciting events in Jarrett’s quest for the 1999 title came at Tallade
When youre caught up in a heated battle, you need to keep your focus. Jarrett mainta
Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrott go over pre-race notes.
Ned Jarrett (left) with son Dale before a 1991 event. Dale was driving for Joe Gibbs racin
The K-Mart 400 victory at Michigan in June brought some needed momentum to the drive for t
Once teammates, now locked in competition, but still family. Dale Jarrett (left) converses
For Dale Jarrett, persistence has been the key ingredient in a career that has continually propelled him to the front of the pack. Looking at Jarrett's quest for the '99 NASCAR Winston Cup championship, there are two key points that jump out from his career. Here is a driver who didn't really become a star until he was in his late-30s. Prior to that, Jarrett was considered a driver with the potential to win maybe one or two races a year, but was never mentioned as a championship contender.
The second is that Jarrett was nearly out at Robert Yates Racing in 1995. He had left Joe Gibbs Racing to take over for the injured Ernie Irvan in the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford Thunderbird, but struggled through a very disappointing year. At that time, Yates was a single-car team and with Irvan showing signs of recovery, the general consensus was Jarrett would be out after one season and Irvan would be back in the car.
"I think a lot of people had given up on Dale Jarrett," says Buddy Parrott, the general manager at Roush Racing and Todd Parrott's father. "All of a sudden, Dale got some chemistry over there and got to going in the right direction and Dale Jarrett has become a very, very smart race car driver. His dad won a championship. I pull for father and son teams, so it is neat for Dale to win a championship." Larry McReynolds, the team's crew chief at the time, saw something special in Jarrett and convinced Yates to expand to a two-car operation in 1996. Although McReynolds stayed with Irvan, he believed Todd Parrott was ready to step up and become a NASCAR Winston Cup crew chief. Yates created the No. 88 Quality Care Ford Thunderbird and the new combination was an instant success. Jarrett took a Parrott-prepared Ford to victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 1996. By the end of that season, Jarrett added victories in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Goodwrench 400 at Michigan. He won as many races in 1996 as he did in his entire career up to that point.
Suddenly, Jarrett had established himself as a star. His next quest was to become a NASCAR Winston Cup champion. "He had not become a winner to the point that he was looked upon as being one of the favorites at most any race until 1996 when he won the Daytona 500, won at Charlotte, Michigan and the Brickyard that year," says Dale's father, Ned Jarrett, a two-time NASCAR champion who is a television commentator for CBS and ESPN. "That is when he became a contender. "I think a lot of people thought because his name was Jarrett it was handed to him on a silver platter, but that was not the case," says Ned. "I didn't have it to hand to him, first of all, and even if I had, I wouldn't have done it. I've always felt a person has to earn what they get. Certainly, that doesn't imply that I didn't try to help him in any way. It's just like my other children, once they got involved, I helped them any way I could. But he did have to make a lot of sacrifices along the way to get to where he is today. The progression was getting into the right situation that has allowed him to do what he is doing right now.
"Getting with Robert Yates was the final step to getting to championship form. Once he got there and started winning on a fairly consistent basis in 1996 and he created the 88 car, it increased the possibility of trying to win the championship. It took a while, even though 1996 and 1997 could have produced a championship. "They have learned what they need to do, not only him as a driver, but the team as well, what it takes to win a championship." When Jarrett left Gibbs' to drive for Yates, he believed he was stepping up to a team that had all the ingredients to win a championship.
But it was also a huge gamble because he was expected to be a fill-in until Irvan recovered from the near-fatal injuries he had suffered in a crash at Michigan Speedway on August 20, 1994. Prior to that, he seemed to be a perfect fit at Joe Gibbs Racing. His brother-in-law, Jimmy Makar, was the crew chief and it appeared to be a happy family. But Jarrett couldn't pass up the opportunity to drive for Yates. "You take some chances through your career and through your life," says Dale. "As I look to the side of us and see Jimmy Makar and Bobby Labonte and those guys battling for the championship, too, it makes me feel good to know that I've helped start something that they've been successful at. And yet, I was able to move on and get with Robert Yates and be in a situation that has been extremely good here.
"In 1995, I didn't know what was going to take place. What I thought was going to take place was my own team, which is the reason I left Jimmy Makar and Joe Gibbs to start with because I thought that was the direction I wanted to go. "It was just a chance, something I thought a lot about. I felt like I needed to make that move and things have fortunately worked out really well. You get yourself in positions where you know it's going to take everything you can do to battle back and stay confident in your abilities. Times get difficult with different situations and I had to realize every day is not going to be a great day, you have to make it great."
Jarrett really didn't burst upon the NASCAR Winston Cup consciousness until he won the Daytona 500 for Gibbs in 1993. Although he drove a Wood Brothers Ford to victory for his first career win in 1991 at Michigan, he was basically another driver in the field. "Winning the Winston Cup title back then was the farthest thing from my mind, really," Jarrett says. "You always dream about it, but in reality, no, I wasn't thinking about this.
Even after the 1995 season, I can say that. "I thought I had myself in a position where I had the car that could show I could win races and we just didn't have a very good year. Going into 1996, the one good thing was we didn't have a lot of expectations with a brand new team with Todd being crew chief for the first time. We just thought we would settle in and see what happens. Things started clicking from the beginning. "But early in the career, nah, I was just happy to be here and compete on a level with these other drivers."
In a sport that is getting younger with 28-year-olds Jeff Gordon and '99 NASCAR Rookie of the Year Tony Stewart, and with more youngsters such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth joining the series in 2000, Jarrett had just turned 43 when he stepped up to the stage at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in December. "For most people, it takes a long time to get to this level," says Jarrett. "A lot of that is the equipment you start out with. That is not to take away from anybody, but the majority of us can't step into first-class equipment right at the beginning. There are only a certain few out here that seem to have the credentials and the can't-miss label on them that people are taking the chance of putting them in top-notch equipment with the type of dollars that it takes to do that. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are a couple of those guys that are good enough that they were able to do that.
"For the most part, if you look at 85 or 90 percent of the drivers, they've had to struggle at the beginning then work their way up. I was late starting my racing career. I was 20 before I ever drove a race car so it just takes time to learn all of that." Ironically, Jarrett had to battle with Bobby Labonte for the championship late into the '99 season. What made it ironic is Makar, now Labonte's crew chief, is married to Dale's sister, Patti.
"Our family is very fortunate right now," Dale says. "We had two opportunities to be extremely happy with the way this could be at the end of the year. If I couldn't win it, I'd have liked nothing better than Jimmy and Patti to be able to experience that. "We talked about it at a family gathering that it would be nice if that could happen. I think it's not something that we just say. I have the utmost respect for Jimmy Makar, not only as a family member, but what he has done in his profession. I would like nothing better than for him to be able to really get all the spoils of victory because of the hard work he has put forth." Although Patti Makar was caught in the middle, her husband enjoyed battling against his brother-in-law and former driver for the Winston Cup title. "It really hasn't been an issue, believe it or not," Makar says. "My wife said it best, it's a win-win situation. It's a whole lot better than us running 29th and 30th.
No matter who won the thing, it's a good deal." Ned Jarrett wants his daughter to experience the thrill of having her husband be part of a championship winning team, but he didn't want it to happen in 1999. "The person that it affects the most is Patti, Jimmy's wife and our daughter," says Ned. "She tried not to dwell on it too much. I mentioned it to her when Bobby moved into second the first time. Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte switched back and forth on second place several times. The first time that he moved into it, I said, 'We're going to have some fun when it gets down to the end of the season, aren't we, with Bobby and Dale battling for the championship?' She said, 'I don't even want to talk about it; I don't even want to think about it.' "I think she and Jimmy have talked briefly about it and I've talked to Jimmy about it after that and she doesn't want to talk about it. I understand because she is the one who has a brother and a husband involved in it. From my standpoint, Jimmy understands my first allegiance is to Dale, and the rest of our family is that way. Patti is caught in the middle." Perhaps no other fellow competitor understands Jarrett as well as Makar.
Not only do the two share a family bond, but they worked very well together at Joe Gibbs Racing. "When Dale left our team, we were all quite disappointed," Makar says. "We felt like we had a good future growing, there was a lot of potential there, a growing young race team. When Dale left, we had to regroup. He went to a team that was established, had a great motor program and good race cars. They had proven winners and winning race cars over there. It was a good deal for him as far as a driver was concerned. But they had a lot of problems when he got over there. They tried to do things the way they used to do things, rather than starting with Dale, the race car driver, and listening to him. They wanted to stick with what they had, which had been proven.
"So many times, you can't do that. You have to change your program, mold things around the people you have there, and the driver is a key part of that. I think they were still trying to do stuff that Davey Allison liked or what worked for Ernie Irvan that didn't work for Dale. "Throughout that whole time, Dale started to doubt himself because the car was a proven winner and here he was struggling and floundering. It was really a difficult time for him."
Jarrett was able to survive the disappointing '95 season to enjoy the four best seasons of his career. "Fortunately, it got turned around a little bit. He won some races and started on his climb back to the top," Makar says. "From that point on, it gave him confidence in what his abilities were. That is the big difference right now between Dale Jarrett today and the Dale Jarrett five years ago. He has a lot more confidence in his abilities and what he can do. He knows he is a good race car driver. He knows he can compete day-in and day-out with people and that goes a long way in this business."
It wasn't until he drove the No. 28 Ford to victory at Pocono in 1995 that Yates began to search for an opportunity to keep Jarrett as a driver. What made Jarrett's Pocono victory so important is that he was fighting for his job, and his career, up to that point. "He is definitely a fighter," Makar says. "Dale Jarrett is not one to give up. He has shown that in a lot of situations in his life. He overcomes obstacles and keeps himself focused on what his goals are and tries to attain them. I know his goal all his life has been to win the Winston Cup championship. Jarrett firmly established himself as a Winston Cup title contender in 1996 when he finished third. He finished second to Gordon in 1997 and third in 1998. "I think it was more the thrill of the chase back then that was exciting and fun," Jarrett says. Jarrett remains popular with his fellow competitors. Rarely has Jarrett shown flashes of temper, although he did hurl his helmet at Bobby Hillin Jr. following a crash at Bristol in 1993 and went after Gordon at New Hampshire this past July. But Jarrett's reputation in the garage area is very good. "Dale is a good guy," says Mark Martin. "He races hard, intense, and fair. That's all you can ask. He is an intense competitor. I like racing with Dale. "He has worked a long time and been through a lot to be where he is today. I respect that. I like his driving style. I'd like to win the championship, but if I can't, I'm happy for him."
In the closing days of the champion-ship chase, Jarrett did his best not to think about what he would do after he won the title. However, he admits there was a special gift he wanted to give his dad once it was all wrapped up. "Being with my dad when I have the Winston Cup trophy, I think that is probably the one thing I've allowed myself to think a little bit about, how special that would be for my dad and myself," Jarrett says. "I think as a parent, you always want things better for your children. I know that he has said a number of times if I could win this championship that would be more special than anything he had ever done.
"Back then, I thought, 'It will be a thrill if we are able to do that to sit there with my dad and have that trophy.' "It's pretty incredible. It's hard to even imagine it was not that long ago I wasn't even sure what I'd be doing and people weren't sure that I could do this for an extended amount of time to win on a regular basis." For Dale Jarrett, perseverance and persistence have definitely paid off.