DJ Right Where He Wants To Be

NASCAR Winston Cup Series points leader Dale Jarrett is back in form, the same form that propelled him to his first championship in 1999.

Jarrett has led the Winston Cup standings for most of the 2001 season, and will remain the points leader until the tour returns to action on May 27 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval where he’s won on three different occasions. Although he has slipped the past couple of weeks, he still owns a 14-point advantage over Jeff Gordon.

This season, Jarrett’s car has been the one to beat more often that not. It’s been one of the machines to beat in the closing stages of most of the 11 races so far this season, and that has allowed him to regain the form that carried him and the No. 88 Ford team to the 1999 championship.

Jarrett has won races at Darlington, Texas and Martinsville this season. He won only two races all last year while slipping to fourth in the points, his lowest championship finish since joining Robert Yates Racing in 1995.

“We’re ahead, and that’s where we want to be,” Jarrett said. “This team has run well this year, even though the results from the last couple of weeks haven’t been what we wanted. In the races we didn’t finish well, we did run well until we had circumstances relegate us to a lower finish than what we probably deserved. I’m excited about where we are and what we’ve done.”

While Jarrett and Gordon didn’t quite end up with the finishes they might have desired in the final 2000 points standings, both are back at the head of the class while other expected Winston Cup title challengers such Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin have struggled tremendously.

“That has certainly been a surprise to me,” Jarrett said. “There’s no reason for that, but you just don’t know why it’s happening. Sometimes the harder you work it seems like the further behind you can get. Those guys – Bobby, Jeff and Mark – are going to win races before the season is over, and I have to figure Bobby is going to play into the championship picture one way or another. Right now, we have a great championship race that’s going on with eight or 10 guys still in it.”

Last year, it took Jarrett until October before he won his second race of the season. He’s already well ahead of that pace.

“That’s just a lot of preparation,” Jarrett says. “We work hard every year and I really don’t know how to work any harder. We’ve used our time and our abilities a little bit better this year and added some new people. All that’s helped make a big difference.”

This weekend is the second of three “off” weeks for the Winston Cup Series in 2001. Next week teams will head to Charlotte for The Winston all-star race, where Jarrett will try to win that event for the first time. The winner takes home a paltry $500,000.

While that’s certainly a lot of money on the line, Jarrett insists his team views winning The Winston as a matter of pride.

“Do you know who finished second in The Winston last year?” Jarrett asked. “Not many do, but my race team does because we were the ones who finished second here last year.”

In last year’s The Winston, Jarrett couldn’t find the muscle in his No. 88 Robert Yates Racing Ford to work his way past eventual winner and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The Winston is a race where there’s not much use in saving your car for anything, but the fans, as well as the drivers, love it.

“It’s all about those last 10 laps,” Jarrett said. “It’s all about getting your car to go fast for that last 10-lap shootout. I would call those laps organized chaos, but it’s not organized other than at the start of the race. Once the race starts, you forget you’re on a mile-and-a-half track because it feels like you’re racing on a short track like Hickory on a Saturday night. The drivers get pumped up and the fans do to. You forget all the courtesy you might have known before and who your buddies are and go after it.

"The Winston is just wide-open. If you don’t win, it doesn’t matter where you finish. It is a good payday regardless of where you finish, so you just go after it and take a few more chances than you normally would. You might try to sneak into a hole that’s not there, a lot of the things you wouldn’t want to do in a 600-mile race. When it comes to the Coca-Cola 600, it’s all about getting your car right for that last 150 miles."

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