Ibanquet Countdown:/I Dale Jarrett
November 28, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
During the first half of the year, Jarrett and his No. 88 UPS Ford team could do little wrong. The second half of the year, they could do little right.
The second-half performance cost Jarrett and his team dearly as Jarrett wound up finishing fifth in the Winston Cup points standings. It was the worst he had finished in the points since 1994, and the worst he had placed in his seven years with Robert Yates Racing.
After a stellar beginning to the season, Jarrett and the UPS team simply faded down the stretch. Not that fifth place is anything to be ashamed about, by any means, but it just isn’t up to the No. 88 team’s standards.
“This sport has just gotten so competitive week-in and week-out that’s difficult just staying consistent,” Jarrett said. “You seem to have your core group that runs well pretty much everywhere you go. You can’t even miss the setup just a little bit these days because it will cost you.
“Back in ’99 when we won the championship, even if we were off a little bit we could still get a Top 10 and a lot of times turn that 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. So, just trying to be more consistent has become more difficult these days. Even though Jeff (Gordon) has done a tremendous job, he’s still had his problems along the way.”
Indeed Gordon did, but he still wound up the champion, a whopping 500 points ahead of Jarrett, the 1999 titlist.
Still, Jarrett and his team made a big impression on his new sponsor, UPS, which dove into the sport with a great deal of enthusiasm heading into this season. The sponsor has put together a nationwide media blitz, with entertaining commercials featuring Jarrett himself and the “big brown truck” of UPS, and has become one of the more visible sponsors throughout the entire sport, which Jarrett says is a tremendous benefit for the team.
“Any time you change a sponsor you look at things a little bit differently and you’re not sure exactly what’s gonna take place,” Jarrett said. “Obviously, there’s the opportunity for a lot of good things to happen and, certainly, with UPS, that’s been the case. Even though they hadn’t been involved in the sport before, they’ve been great to work with – it’s been fun.
“It’s been good for the sport and it’s been good for us at Robert Yates Racing. Financially, apparently it’s a great deal for Robert. I don’t’ know numbers or anything like that, but I just know it allows us to do the things that we need to do to win races and run up front. We’re just very fortunate to be involved with a company like UPS.”
After getting involved in the “big wreck” at Daytona and finishing 22nd, Jarrett scored a 10th-place run at Rockingham, but then went on a three-race streak in which he finished no lower than fourth, culminated in a victory in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway.
That vaulted him into first place in the Winston Cup points standings, and even a disappointing 16th-place finish at Bristol the following week couldn’t knock him from that perch.
A dominant performance at Texas in the Harrah’s 500 put the No. 88 Taurus back into victory lane, and Jarrett scored a second consecutive triumph in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville to solidify his advantage.
That made three victories in the first eight races, and it appeared early on that Jarrett had returned to his championship form and was the man to beat for the crown in 2001.
Three top-five finishes in his next six races kept him on top of the heap, but Gordon began to hit stride and kept the pressure on. When Jarrett slipped up and finished 18th at Michigan, Gordon took advantage by winning the Kmart 400 and taking over the points lead.
The early part of the summer belonged to Gordon, but Jarrett gave notice he wasn’t finished by taking the checkered flag in the New England 300 at New Hampshire in July, allowing him to pull into a first-place tie with Gordon in the championship chase.
That would be the final time Jarrett would be a factor in the points race, however, and it was the final time he would see victory lane. A 41st-place finish at Pocono the following week dropped him back to third in the points, and he slowly began to slip into oblivion as he posted three finishes of 31st or worst in the next five events.
“We’d really like to forget about the month of August and what happened to us,” Jarrett said. “We just kind of dug ourselves a hole there. It was unfortunate because we ran well throughout August, but we just didn’t get the finishes to show that. We couldn’t get ourselves out of that hole, and Jeff just kinda took off from there. (Teammate) Ricky (Rudd) tried to stay with Jeff for a while, but he faded late in the season, too.”
Jarrett finished the season with seven top-10 runs in his last nine outings, but by then, it was too little, too late.
“I’d like to congratulate Jeff (Gordon),” Jarrett said. “They had a great year. They won races when they needed to and were consistent at other times, so you’ve got to take your hat off to them. They’ve been the best this year.