Dale Jarrett, a Winner and a Champion

                                   March 2008              Dale Wilkerson

After a career that has included 32 race wins, a championship, and 668 starts, Dale Jarrett competed in his last points race, at the Bristol Motor Speedway, March 16th  2008.

            Jarrett’s final races in Sprint Cup have been less than memorable. He made the move to Michael Waltrip Racing after the 2007 season, and all three of those MWR cars have struggled to find consistency. But for the folks at MWR know that having a former champion in the fold, as a team member, has helped this team put a foundation in place, for their future.

            During Jarrett’s first years, at the Sprint (then Winston) Cup level, he found himself driving cars that also struggled for speed and consistency. After bouncing around in a couple of rides, Jarrett spent time driving for Cale Yarborough. Cale went through more drivers than New York Yankee’s have managers. Cale and Dale parted ways in 1989, leaving Jarrett competing in the Busch Series and hoping for another chance at Cup Racing. Jarrett was left without a Cup ride until he was chosen to replace the injured Neil Bonnett.

            Bonnett was injured at Darlington in the spring of 1990. Glen and Eddie Wood wanted a driver that had a history of taking care of his car, and Dale Jarrett was a perfect fit. Even though he had not had much success at the Cup level, Jarrett was one of the top competitors in the Busch Series.

            Jarrett picked up his first win in 1991. He battled door to door with the Robert Yates Ford of Davey Allison, during the August race at Michigan. Jarrett held the high line, and was able to beat Allison to the line by a matter of inches. Jarrett’s steady driving and determination caught the attention of a Super Bowl winning coach that had the itch to be involved in NASCAR racing.

            Jarrett left the famed #21 Woods Brothers’ car for a brand new team for the 1992 season. Joe Gibbs had just formed his team and Jarrett, with his brother-in-law, crew chief Jimmy Makar, looked forward to the challenge of making the Interstate Batteries Chevrolet a winner. 

            During his three years with Joe Gibbs, Jarrett showed glimpses of promise. In the 1993 Daytona 500, he won the first Dale and Dale show, as he out dueled Dale Earnhardt for his first win at Daytona. Ned Jarrett, Dale’s two-time champion and race commentator father, was working the CBS broadcast that day. It was a special moment for all the Jarrett’s, Ned had never won at Daytona and for him to call his son’s first Daytona 500 win made it that much more special for Dale.

            After a strong 1993 season with a fourth place finish in the points standings, Jarrett and his team had their struggles through 1994. He did pick up another win, October at Charlotte, but he also failed to qualify for a race at North Wilkesboro. Even though his 1994 season had not gone like he wanted, Jarrett had again caught the eye of an owner needing a steady, calm hand behind the wheel of his racecars.

             Ernie Irvan had moved to Robert Yates Racing in 1993, after the death of Davey Allison. Irvan had two wins in 1993, and added three more, by mid-season, in 1994. Irvan was challenging Dale Earnhardt for the points lead before he was seriously injured at the Michigan Speedway, during practice for the August 1994 race. Yates picked Jarrett to take over the #28 Havoline Ford for the 1995 season, until Irvan could return to the track.

            Jarrett’s first ride in the #28 resulted in the pole for the 1995 Daytona 500. But there was not much success for Jarrett, or any other team in 1995, that didn’t have the new Monte Carlo’s in their garage. The Chevrolets had a clear advantage on track, but a lot of fans questioned Jarrett’s desire because the #28-car was not up front contending for the lead and race wins. Rumors were floating that Yates was going to replace Jarrett at anytime. Those were just rumors, for the most part.

            Jarrett won the July Pocono race to pick up his only win in the #28, but his second place finish, the following week at Talladega, went farther to restore the confidence that his team, and fans of the Yates’ Rockets, had in both his desire to race and his ability to get the job done. Jarrett, without drafting help, passed car after car, on the outside in the closing laps of the Talladega Diehard 500. Fans of the #28 had witnessed Davey Allison pass cars the same way, in the closing laps of the 1987 Talladega 500. On that day, Davey ran out of time and finished second to Bill Elliott. In 1995, Jarrett also needed a few more laps, and he had to settle for second place behind Sterling Marlin. With that strong run, at the track where Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash, a lot of fan support was earned by Dale Jarrett. I know two guys, me and my brother Britt, that were at that race. When Jarrett began his charge toward the front, we were so into the race, that when we saw that Havoline Thunderbird picking off car after car we both said, “Davey is flying!!” to remember that Davey wasn’t in his car, but that was Dale Jarrett.

            Ernie Irvan made his return to the track before the end of the 1995 season. Yates provided a second car, the #88, for Irvan to allow Jarrett to finish the year in the #28. For 1996, Yates decided to field the #88 for the entire year. He offered that ride, with crew chief Todd Parrot to Jarrett. The decision to take the wheel of this car would begin an upswing for both Dale Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing, resulting in their best years in racing.

            Jarrett began the 1996 season by winning the Bud-Shootout. Jarrett would win this race a total of three times between 1996 and 2004. Jarrett followed that 96-shootout win, with his second Daytona 500 win, which was the Dale and Dale show volume two. Jarrett passed Earnhardt with about 30-laps to go, and held him off for the win.

            In 1996, Jarrett added three more wins, the Coca-Cola 600, Michigan 400, and the Brickyard 400. Jarrett finished third in the point’s standings, and through the 2001 season, he would finish no lower than fifth.

            Jarrett would place second in the 1997 standings, finishing the year with seven wins, three poles, and 23 top ten finishes. He only found victory lane three times in 1998, but managed to earn more money than he did in 1997. The big thing about his first three years in the Yates #88, was 46-top ten finishes. The consistency he had been looking for with other teams, he found with Robert Yates.

            Though he won more races in 1997, the 1999 season may be Dale Jarrett’s favorite year. He picked up four wins and 29 top ten finishes on his way to the Winston Cup Championship. Then for icing on the cake, he won his third Daytona 500 to begin the 2000 season.

            Over his career, Dale Jarrett won 32 races, 29 of those for Robert Yates with 28 of those 29 coming at the wheel of the #88-car. Jarrett and Yates also earned the championship that seemed to elude both of them for so long.

Jarrett took his last checkered flag for Robert Yates at Talladega in 2005. The Yates cars have been a shadow of their past since 2003, along about the time Yates and Jack Roush formed an alliance that was supposed to help make both teams stronger. When this information and horsepower sharing agreement started, the Roush cars improved while the Yates cars faded. So at the end of the 2006 season, Jarrett decided to help one more new team make a go of it.

            Though the times have been hard during his year and a half in the MWR-Toyota, Jarrett’s mark will be etched on this team for years to come. You know as we think what if sometimes; what if Jack Roush had put Jarrett in Mark Martin’s old ride instead of David Reagan? Jarrett might have found one more checkered flag and he would have definitely had a better year than the rookie David Reagan had in 2007. Jarrett would have probably said no thanks to an offer from Roush so we could help his friend, Michael Waltrip, get his new team started.

            Jarrett will make one more start this season, as he plans to run the All-Star race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, in May. I hope the folks at MWR will talk with one of Jarrett’s previous team owners. The Joe Gibbs Toyota’s have been as fast as anything on track this season. And since Kyle Busch had to bump Jarrett on the last lap at Atlanta, I think Joe should contact Michael about setting DJ up with a good motor and great handling chassis. DJ helped lay the foundation at Joe Gibbs Racing that has led to the success of drivers Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch.

            I know long time Yates fans would love to see him start that race in a Yates Rocket, and that car that he won the 1996 Coca-Cola 600 with would be a good pick. The folks at Lowe’s Motor Speedway are planning a big send off for Jarrett. A parade of his former cars, like the one at Daytona this year for former Daytona 500 winner’s would be a nice touch to celebrate the career of this former Championship winning driver. And yes, he will make a lap in the big brown truck, with one lucky fan, riding shotgun.

            Whether Dale Jarrett can win the All-Star race or not doesn’t matter in the big picture, though it would make for a great story, and perhaps even a nice movie. I just hope that Dale Jarrett, along with his family and friends, can enjoy the moment on that May night, as much as we have enjoyed his driving during his great career.