Off the track, Dale Jarrett has developed into one of NASCAR's leading ambassadors. On the track, he is one of the sport's most consistent drivers, with six-straight points finishes in the Top 5 between 1996 and 2001, and a ninth-place finish in 2002. His Robert Yates Racing team appeared to be in turmoil for much of last season, though, with an early-season crew chief change on Jarrett's No. 88 team and an end-of-season driver change with the team's other car. Jarrett spoke to Stock Car Racing about last season and his outlook for 2003 with new crew chief Brad Parrott (brother to former Jarrett crew chief Todd Parrott, who is now competition director for RYR) and new teammate Elliott Sadler.

SCR: There seemed to be a lot of distractions at Robert Yates Racing last season, both with your car and with the car driven by Ricky Rudd. How much did that hinder the 88 team?

Jarrett: Quite a bit. We even added our own distractions with trying to decide who was really in charge and what direction we wanted to go. Obviously, even though we tried not to let Ricky's situation affect us much with what they were doing, it had its effects on the organization. We looked for a much better start and felt like we were in a much better position to be ready for a new season as we began this year.

SCR: Did you feel fortunate--even relieved--last year to finish in the Top 10 in points?

Jarrett: Yeah, I think we had to be relieved because we really didn't perform at a level where we should have been in that position. What made me proud of this organization is the guys stepped up and had enough pride in them to realize that this was something that was very important to us; even though we were going to lose our status in the Top 5 we could stay in the Top 10.

SCR: Have the dynamics between the two teams changed now that you have a younger teammate and Rudd, a 40-something veteran like you, is gone?

Jarrett: A lot of things have changed. We have younger people all across the board. I'm the only old guy still with something to do around here, basically. But it's brought a new set of fresh ideas in here with guys who are excited to be in the positions they're in. I see it being a huge benefit to me to have these changes taking place and to have these young people involved.

SCR: By young people you mean Doug Yates (general manager) and Brad Parrott and others?

Jarrett: Yeah, Doug and Brad and Raymond Fox (Sadler's crew chief), and Todd Parrott is still a young man, so we've got young guys in the major positions of our race team. I think that's only good. Then to bring in a young man like Elliott, who has a tremendous amount of talent and a ton of enthusiasm, is really going to make me the benefactor of all these changes.

SCR: That brings up a good point: You're 46 years old with a Winston Cup championship on your resume, 30 wins, and 8 Top 10s in the points. What is left for you to accomplish?

Jarrett: Just winning more races and trying to win another championship. There's a lot that I want to do in this sport yet. I love to compete, and there's nothing I see anywhere out there that I could get involved in that will allow me to compete at this level. I want to continue to do this as long as I possibly can. What drives me is the competition and the opportunity to get better as a driver. Even though I've been doing it a long time and I'm 46, I still think I can improve in areas, and that's what I'm striving to do.

SCR: It sounds like when you do climb out of the car for the final time, you might want to try another stint as a team owner, because of the competition.

Jarrett: Yeah, I don't know about that. I've seen that side and I don't know. That's a ways down the road, so I'm not exactly sure what I want to do when that time comes.

SCR: How much longer do you want to drive? Do you have a timetable at this point?

Jarrett: I don't really. Obviously now, with the extension of the contract through 2006, I'm going to be here at least four more years. That's all going to depend on the fact that I stay healthy, that I can do my job as a driver, and I can be competitive. I don't want to just be out here to say I'm a Winston Cup driver. I've been here too long to do that. I want to make sure that I'm competitive. We'll just see how long that may be. If it's four years or if it's five or six, I don't think age is what's going to be the determining factor. I think it's going to be how competitive I can be and how long I want to do it.

SCR: Do you foresee a future in television, maybe following in your dad's footsteps?

Jarrett: That might be possible. Before, I really didn't ever look at that, but that might be possible. I like the idea of working only half a year and getting a year's salary. That's not a bad idea. If they keep the current organization of the TV (schedule for races) like it is, then, yeah, that might be something. I enjoy the sport and being around the people involved in the sport, so I would say that's a very real possibility.

SCR: By today's standards, you were a late bloomer, getting your first win at age 34, which was late even for that time period. Did you ever get frustrated to the point you wanted to give it up before you started winning?

Jarrett: No. I'm too competitive to do that. I've never given up on anything in my entire life. I've been playing golf since I was 9 years old--that's 37 years--and I haven't come close to mastering that, so that will tell you that I don't give up on anything. There were times, certainly, that it was frustrating and I wondered whether I was making the right moves and whether I was doing the right things, but never did I give it the thought of giving up.

SCR: If you hadn't made it as a driver, what would you be doing right now?

Jarrett: It's hard to tell. I don't know. I don't even really think about that, but I probably would have just continued to try to be something involved in this sport because this sport is so good to the people involved that I just enjoy it tremendously.

SCR: Considering what you've accomplished with Robert Yates, with only two times in eight seasons finishing out of the Top 5 in points, did you dream of that level of success when you came over from Joe Gibbs' team?

Jarrett: When I came over, my idea was that this was going to give me the opportunity to see if I was a good enough driver to win more than one race a year (and) could I challenge for a championship. Obviously, when you surround yourself with the right people, as I've been able to do here at Robert Yates Racing, you find that those things can happen. I don't even know that I allowed myself to dream far enough that I would become a Winston Cup champion one day and that we could be a challenger year in and year out, but Robert and Doug and all our sponsors have made all that possible.

SCR: In doing interviews with your peers in this sport, I often ask them what driver they respect most, and your name comes up more than anybody's. Is that something you strive for, respect from the other drivers? It's something you're proud of, I would think.

Jarrett: Yeah, I certainly am. I don't know that I know how a majority of the guys feel, but there's some I certainly have a closer relationship with than others. That makes me feel good about what I've been able to do--that I've been able to compete with these guys on a high level and earn their respect, too, because I think that's something that's very difficult to do. In a business where you see and compete against the same people for 36 weekends a year, it would be easy for everybody really not to like each other, but that's not the case here. So, yeah, it makes me feel good that others would bring up my name and have that respect for me. I know that there's a number of guys out here that I have a huge amount of respect for, for what they've accomplished, for different ways they handle situations. I think that I try to look and take some things from each of those guys and try to make myself a better driver and better person.

SCR: Do some of the other drivers come to you for advice?

Jarrett: (He laughs.) As I've gotten older, yeah, they do. You get that, but that's a good feeling, too, to know that these young guys do that. Just last year, two guys that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, young guys who came along, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, both came to me at different times just talking racing and talking about different situations. That was a good feeling to know that they felt so strongly about me that they could come talk with me. It's good having a young teammate now like Elliott Sadler. We've talked for a number of years. That's a good feeling to have, to know that they respect you.

SCR: You and Dale Earnhardt Jr. seem to be pretty close.

Jarrett: Yeah, we are, and we've talked a lot more probably within the last year. Even though I remember him growing up, and he's about the same age as my son Jason, our relationship has evolved. I have a huge amount of respect for what he's done, for what he's accomplished at such a young age, how he handles himself. I think I've found that he has a lot of respect for me. A lot of that came from the relationship I had with his dad. I think that he's found out that while his dad and I might not have been the best of friends, we were good friends. I'm sure he had a lot closer friends out there, but we had a respect for each other in this business. I think he's come to find out that there was a reason for that. So, yeah, we've gotten a lot closer, and I enjoy the relationship. Again, I have a huge amount of respect for him.

SCR: How do the demands of the sport compare to, say, five years ago?

Jarrett: Oh, it's tenfold. You do a lot more appearances and things these days, even with the economy the way it is. The opportunities are there, especially with sponsors like UPS and Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Company. I'm very fortunate in having great companies like that involved with our race team. The fan base and fan support are just tremendous, bigger than they've ever been.

SCR: How has the sport progressed in terms of safety during the two years since Dale Earnhardt's death?

Jarrett: We've come further in two years than we had in the previous 20 years, as far as safety and the amount of attention that's paid to safety by the teams, but more by the manufacturers and by NASCAR. It's just tremendous. To see everyone working together for a common goal has just been tremendous. I think the one thing I can say right now is we can't lose sight of that and think that we have conquered it, because things can still happen, and we need to continue to work in that direction.

SCR: Would it be accurate to say that before Earnhardt's death safety was more an afterthought and now it's more of a mindset?

Jarrett: It was always something we talked about, but I'm not sure how much we acted upon it. Now we are more proactive with it. Yeah, even though we discussed safety before, now it's the first thing in our minds.

SCR: What's the biggest challenge facing this sport today?

Jarrett: Just the competition level and how we have to keep it entertaining and keep it competitive, to make sure that the fans still enjoy the product that we put out there.