DJ Still Not Dismayed

For Dale Jarrett, it’s starting to seem like a long time ago since he won his one and only NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

Two years is certainly not an eternity, but it can seem that way for a driver who has been to the top of the mountain and hasn’t been able to make it back. That’s the feeling Jarrett has had to live with over the past two Winston Cup seasons, and it’s gotten worse, especially throughout the second half of the 2001 campaign.

Jarrett appeared to be a candidate to make a strong run at his second Cup title, but he and his No. 88 UPS Ford team faded down the stretch. He wound up a whopping 500 points behind champion Jeff Gordon, but more of a telling statistic was that he fell to fifth in the points standings, his worst finish since coming to Robert Yates Racing in 1995.

“Certainly once you win a championship, it’s like nothing else is going to be good enough for you or for your race team,” Jarrett said. “I’m just competitive. I want to win every week. Obviously in this profession, you can’t do that. But still, there are levels of acceptance. I understand things are more competitive now. We’ve had difficulties with our team throughout different times. It’s an adjustment. This is a difficult business at best.”

Jarrett had only one DNF during his championship campaign in ’99 and finished worse than 18th just twice while winning four races. During his title defense season of 2000, he had two DNFs but won only two races and finished fourth in the points.

In 2001, he had four DNFS and finished worse than 30th seven times.

Jarrett made the first half of the 2001 season look pretty easy. In the first 18 races, he won three poles, three races and had nine top-five finishes. On July 22 at New Hampshire International Speedway, he won the New England 300, which was good enough to propel him into a first-place tie with Jeff Gordon for the Winston Cup points lead.

And then, the bottom fell out. While Jarrett began to struggle, Gordon took off like a rocket and never looked back.

A 41st-place finish the following week at Pocono dropped him to third place in the points. The next eight races saw Jarrett finish 30th or worse four times, dropping him back to fifth place in the standings, a fall from which he never recovered.

“Probably if I look back on it this past season, I’ll look back on the mistakes I made,” Jarrett said. “Now I’ve got to try to learn and benefit from that. It was a good season, and there are many people that would love to be able to finish fifth in the points. In seven years, though, that’s our worst finish in the points. There were a lot of positives, and there are things that we can draw from. And that’s what we’ll try to improve upon for next year.

“We won four races, and there’s only one guy that won more than that (Gordon won five). But it seems like that’s been a long time ago. The biggest thing we have to do is be more consistent. It seems like, especially the second half of the season, we were either pretty good or pretty bad. That created situations where we were trying to make up for things that we were lacking in, and that got us in trouble. We have to be a little bit better prepared to start the next season, and I think we’re going to be.”

The 2002 campaign will feel quite different for Jarrett. For the first time since he joined Robert Yates Racing more than seven years ago, he’ll be without Todd Parrott by his side. Parrott, who won 24 races with Jarrett and the No. 88 team, gave up his position as crew chief in early December to become the team manager at RYR.

Instead, Jarrett will be paired with Jimmy Elledge, who comes over from Andy Petree Racing where he spent the past three years as the crew chief for Kenny Wallace and then for Bobby Hamilton. Elledge has won a Winston Cup race, making it to victory lane with Hamilton at Talladega in 2001.

“Just having the opportunity to work with a driver like Dale Jarrett is tremendous,” Elledge said. “I know I’ve got some big shoes to fill. Todd is a proven winner, and it’s tough to try and follow up on what he’s done.

“But I know that we’ve got the resources and we’ve got the attitude here at Robert Yates Racing to get the job done. There’s no reason this team won’t put last year behind it and concentrate on winning another Winston Cup championship next season.”

Jarrett said he isn’t going to sit and stew about “what might have been” in 2001. He’s gained way to much experience and too much wisdom over the years in this business to let that happen.

“I’m 45 years old, so I think I can handle those situations a little better now,” Jarrett said. “If I were young and had a lot more success when I was younger, then it may be more difficult to handle. What I do is try to take what we’ve done and use it as a positive to try and make myself better and make our race team better. And we will be better next year, I can promise you that.”

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