If Dale Jarrett has any remaining doubts about whether he's a
NASCAR superstar, he should consider this: At 9 a.m. on Sunday,
three hours before the start of the Daytona 500, fans were
packed eight deep around his garage stall at Daytona
International Speedway to watch paint dry. It's not as if they
didn't have other entertainment options. A combo was running
through the Charlie Daniels Band's oeuvre on the infield grass.
Any number of tours and promotions ("Get your picture taken in
UPS brown!") were available. Still, a crowd gathered to watch a
man take a blow-dryer to the fresh coat of blue paint on the
front-left panel of Jarrett's Ford Taurus. Several of the
onlookers videotaped the occasion for posterity.
Why would such a mundane activity attract so much attention?
Because it involved Jarrett, the lanky, late-blooming defending
Winston Cup champ who was in the process of dominating Speed
Weeks. On the previous weekend he had won the 500 pole, with a
speed of 191.091 mph over the 2.5-mile course, and the Bud
Shootout, in which he overtook 14 cars in 25 laps. He looked
invincible. Last Thursday, with his spot in the 500 grid already
sewed up, he finished second in one of the twin 125-mile
qualifying races. Then on the eve of the Great American Race,
Jarrett's mojo--and, more important, his number 88 car--took a
beating. About 45 minutes into Saturday afternoon's Happy Hour,
the final practice session before the race, Jarrett's car was
tapped from behind by Jeff Gordon's. As Jarrett struggled to
control his car, his front end was clipped by Bill Elliott.
Jarrett's Taurus sustained body damage serious enough that car
owner Robert Yates flew in three fabricators from his shop in
Charlotte. They arrived around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, and when
garages were allowed to reopen at five the next morning, the
trio went to work welding a new fender into place and taking
care of other damage to the front and rear ends. Then the
cosmetic work began. "The paint was still wet [three hours
before the race]," said Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott. "I
was worried the decals were going to fly off."
As omens go, the wreck wasn't the best imaginable--except to
Jarrett's engine builder, Nick Ramey. "We'll probably win," he
said as he stood in the inspection line with the fixed-up car 90
minutes before the race. "Every time we have a problem here, we
win. We hit a seagull [in 1996] and won, and we hit a turtle
last year and won the Pepsi 400 [run at Daytona in July]."
Ramey's hunch was right. But Jarrett's victory on Sunday, his
third in the 500, had less to do with predestination than with
the car that Parrott, Ramey and the rest of Jarrett's crew built
for him. "Last year I had to try to make too many things
happen," said Jarrett, who finished 37th at Daytona in 1999
after crashing. "This year I have a car I can be patient with."
Jarrett led or ran second behind Mark Martin most of the
afternoon until upstart Johnny Benson, who didn't have a primary
sponsor for his Pontiac Grand Prix until the day before the
race, gambled and took on only two new tires when most of the
43-car field pitted for a four-tire change on Lap 157. The quick
stop gave him the lead, which he held for 39 of the remaining 43
laps, with Jarrett lurking behind. "Johnny ran really well,"
said Elliott, who finished third, "but Dale and [the other
drivers in the lead pack] were using him. They were waiting to
hang him out."
A six-car wreck on Lap 193 brought out the caution flag, and on
the restart, with four laps left, Jarrett showed his hand. "I
knew [the restart] was going to be my best opportunity because I
had seen before that Johnny's car didn't get up to speed as good
as mine did," said Jarrett. In Turn 2 he went low on Benson, who
futilely tried to cut him off and fell back to 12th. Two laps
later the race was effectively ended when Jimmy Spencer hit the
wall, bringing out the caution flag that would fly alongside the
Jarrett led a parade of five Tauruses across the finish
line--Jeff Burton was second, followed by Elliott, Rusty Wallace
and Martin--giving Chevy drivers, who had been griping about
their not-so-fleet new fleet of 2000 Monte Carlos, more reason
to complain. But not all Chevy drivers took part in the factory
fussing. "It's not Ford versus Chevy," said rookie Dale
Earnhardt Jr., who drove his Monte Carlo to an impressive 13th
place, three spots behind top rookie finisher Matt Kenseth. "I
think who's building your engine is more important than what
kind of body you've got on your race car, and Robert Yates did a
lot of homework this winter."
While Yates was doing his homework, Jarrett was getting used to
his role as NASCAR's top dog. His ascension was neither speedy
nor probable. He didn't get a full-time Winston Cup ride until
he was 31, and at 37 he had two career wins. By winning the
Winston Cup at 42 last year, he became the oldest first-time
champion. Says Jarrett, "Kelley [his wife] and I sat down with
our kids, and I explained, 'Hey, this is going to be a year that
I'm gone a lot. There are going to be a lot of things required
Jarrett's off-season commitments seriously cut into the time he
could spend on the links, a favorite pastime. A few days before
heading to Daytona he found time to play a round at Augusta
National. An eight handicapper, he shot a 38 on the front nine,
but his rustiness showed on the back side. "Amen Corner brought
me to my knees," he said last week. "Double bogey, bogey,
bogey." He carded a 46 on the back nine.
He was better down the stretch on Sunday, and his late pass
produced a modicum of excitement for the estimated crowd of
200,000. During the twin 125-mile qualifying races there had
been one lead change in 100 laps of competition. The soothingly
sonorous tone of the engines, combined with the lack of action,
led Larry McReynolds, Ken Schrader's crew chief, to suggest that
the infield grandstand be replaced with cots. Dale Earnhardt
said it was the worst racing he had seen at Daytona and testily
declared that "[NASCAR founder] Mr. Bill France Sr. probably
rolled over in his grave if he saw that deal."
The first 190 laps on Sunday weren't much better. NASCAR's new
requirement that all teams run with standard-issue shocks took
away a major tool teams had used to tune their chassis and sent
them scrambling in vain for new ways to keep car noses down.
Practically every car ran tight (meaning it was tough to turn),
so handling was at a premium and passing was a chore. Said
Gordon, who started 11th but lost five laps when he had to go
behind the pit wall with an oil leak and finished 34th, "When
Daytona becomes a handling track, it can make for some pretty
But as anyone who spent time in the garage on Sunday morning
will tell you, sometimes there's a lot to be said for sitting
around watching paint dry.