Jarrett Suffers Summer Swoon

Perhaps no driver was looking forward to racing at New Hampshire this weekend more than Dale Jarrett. Since winning there in July, things certainly haven’t gone as planned.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Jarrett was leading the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings, does it? Just seven races ago, in fact, Jarrett and Jeff Gordon were tied atop the Winston Cup leaderboard.

Gordon is still there, but Jarrett is gone – long gone… and that’s after shaving 100 points of his deficit to Gordon last week at Richmond.

Still, Jarrett remains 393 points out of the lead with 10 races remaining. Mathematically, Jarrett can catch up, but only if Gordon and second-place Ricky Rudd have a month like Jarrett did in August.

From July 29 to Sept. 2, a span of six races, Jarrett lost an amazing 493 points to Gordon. That’s a little more than 82 points a race, which equates to about 25 positions. Twenty-five spots worse than Gordon in six races seems more like Michael Waltrip than Jarrett, doesn’t it?

“Our only chance is that somewhere along the way that Jeff has a couple more problems and gets us closer to where we can get it down to actual racing,” Jarrett said. “But we just have to go out and do our job and try to finish off this season and forget about the month of August that happened to us. We just kind of dug ourselves a hole there. It was unfortunate because we ran well throughout August, we just didn’t get the finishes to show that.”

That’s an understatement. He was 41st at Pocono – losing 107 points – before August started, and then he finished 12th at Indianapolis on Aug. 5. That’s the good news.

The bad news? That was his best finish of the month, and he still dropped 58 points to Gordon.

Jarrett won the pole at Watkins Glen, but spun off course twice and finished 31st, losing another 105 points and falling to third in the standings. At Michigan the next week, Jarrett was running in the Top 10 when a tire went down, causing him to hit the wall. He ended up 37th, dropping 89 more points to Gordon.

Jarrett survived at Bristol, coming home sixth. But he still lost ground as Gordon led the most laps and finished third. Twenty-five more points were lost, and Jarrett was 379 out of the top spot.

August had ended, but Jarrett’s struggles didn’t. He roared from a 27th starting spot to lead the Southern 500 at Darlington before misfortune intervened again. Some loose lug nuts forced Jarrett to pit, but he remained on the lead lap. Later, two studs on the left-rear tire broke from the vibration of the loose lug nuts, and Jarrett had to go to the garage area to make repairs.

Darlington marked the high and low points of his season. In March, Jarrett’s victory vaulted him to the top of the points standings, while in September, his 34th-place finish dropped him to fourth, 493 points behind.

Yes, Jarrett made up 100 points at Richmond, but the damage has been done. Now, the rest of the 2001 season appears to be an extended test for 2002.

“What we have to do with the hole we’ve dug ourselves is just continue to race for victories,” Jarrett said. “It might not have looked like that Saturday night at Richmond. We ended up finishing fourth, but we struggled there all night. We tried something a little different in our setup, and we finally got it a lot closer to right at the end.”

Even a team like Jarrett’s, which has done it all the past five years, finds it difficult to maintain season-long consistency. Jarrett won the championship in 1999, the Daytona 500 twice, the Brickyard 400 twice and the Coca-Cola 600 once. But running up front every week has become increasingly difficult.

“Even the past three years, it’s expanded,” Jarrett said of front-running teams. “We have teams now that stay together longer. They have the financial backing to make it all happen and you have drivers getting more experience.

“Not only that, but you’ve got drivers coming in that maybe don’t have the experience in Winston Cup, but they have a lot of driving experience and racing experience with these type of cars at a lot of these tracks because of the trucks and the Busch Series. So they’re better prepared to come in and run well in Winston Cup racing. They may not do it every week, but when you throw those guys into the mix occasionally, then you make it even more difficult.

“It’s always been competitive, and to win you’ve obviously had to always beat everybody, but now to be there week-in and week-out has become much more difficult than in the past.”

So when Jarrett has a misstep, it’s a lot more obvious than even two years ago when he won the title. That year, Jarrett finished outside the Top 10 only four times. When Bobby Labonte won the championship last year, he finished outside the Top 10 a total of 10 times, while Gordon has finished 11th or worse seven times so far this year.

Clearly, competition is getting tougher.

“It’s just become so competitive week-in and week-out,” Jarrett said. “You seem to have your core group that seems to run well pretty much everywhere that you go. Even back in 1999 when we won the championship, if we were off a little bit we could still get a Top 10 and a lot of times make than into a Top 5.

“You have a difficult time doing that now because you have at least 10 to 15 cars that seem to be very close week-in and week-out, and they run that way throughout the entire day. Richmond was an example. We were fortunate because we were looking at finishing outside the Top 15, and we just happened to get everything right at the right time towards the end, but that’s what’s made it more difficult to me.”

That might be so because Jarrett and other championship contenders sometimes try a little too hard.

“With the competition closer, you get yourself into accidents, and it makes you press maybe a little bit more as far as trying to get a little more horsepower on some of the bigger tracks, and then that can create an engine problem,” Jarrett said. “It just makes you do things.

“It makes you press more on the track and take a few more chances, which puts yourself in a position for things to happen. So, just trying to be consistent has become more difficult to make all of that happen. Even though Jeff has done a tremendous job, he’s still had his problems along the way.”

But those problems are no match for Jarrett’s – especially lately.

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