May 17 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race Gives Dale Jarrett Opportunity to Say Goodbye to the Fans
Throughout Dale Jarrett's NASCAR career, Charlotte Motor Speedway has played an instrumental role. It has tested his desire for his profession, challenged his fortitude, provided him with new opportunities and now, will allow him to bid farewell to his fans.
When the checkered flag waves on the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race Saturday night, May 17, it will mark the end of Jarrett's nearly three-decade racing career.
"The All-Star Race. (is) an opportunity to say goodbye to the fans," said Jarrett, driver of the No. 44 UPS Toyota. "The fans that you see come to that All-Star event are the fans that really make up what this sport is about. That is really my opportunity to get in front of a huge crowd in a place that means a lot to me."
For the athletic Jarrett, the honors he earned in prep sports paled in comparison to the exhilaration he felt the first time he strapped into a race car at Hickory Speedway. He knew what he wanted, even though his father, two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, encouraged him to take a different career path. The elder Jarrett knew the sacrifices the sport required and the hardships it dealt, and he didn't want his son to have to experience them.
But the younger Jarrett would have it no other way. Still, at times, it seemed as though "difficulty" was Jarrett's constant companion, from injuries to people questioning his decisions and sometimes his talent.
Early in Jarrett's career, it was a severely broken foot suffered in a 1980 accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway that, for many, might have ended the pursuit of a racing career.
"The accident was just unfortunate," the Hickory, N.C., resident said. "It was a pretty vicious wreck."
The injury prevented Jarrett from running the first few races in 1981 at Hickory, but it gave him time to get everything in order for the 1982 season, the first year of the NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series.
That's when Jarrett developed his own team and Newton-Conover High graduate Jerry Punch invested a "small amount" in the organization, while he studied to become a doctor. Jarrett was racing against his older brother, Glenn, but he also was finding himself involved in numerous crashes.
"I had a long talk with D.J. in my office sometime in the mid 1980s and we talked about his career and what he really wanted to do with it,"
said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "At that time, he was kind of stuck in second gear, which is what happens to most race drivers. They start off, they get into second gear and they can't go. But he persevered and kept digging after a lot of people would have given up. As a matter of fact, he was really a late bloomer if you look back on his career when he really started winning races."
Jarrett struggled through most of the 1980s. "It was definitely hit and miss early on," Jarrett said. "I've thought a lot about the times when I had my own Busch team, trying to make ends meet, having two other people working with me full time. It wasn't uncommon for it to be 18-hour days. Not only that, I would drive the hauler to the track. I say hauler, but it was really a pickup truck with a trailer behind it.
"I owned the company. I went out and tried to drum up the sponsorship. I didn't build the engines, (but) I did learn to build the cars. I put bodies on them. I think I was paying myself $115 a week. But I was making it, and it all led to really good things."
It appeared Jarrett had found the break he needed in Cup racing in 1987 when Eric Freedlander hired him to replace veteran Tommy Ellis, but that team folded at the end of the season. The following year he drove for four different teams before joining Cale Yarborough for 19 races. He remained with Yarborough through 1989, but was then dismissed.
"You always wonder whether a guy is going to make it or not, even though he's done well on the short tracks. Sometimes, when they get to the big tracks, something doesn't click," Wheeler explained. "Sometimes guys just end up being average. They make it to the Cup level and then they win a race or two, but they never do much more than that. He went through that phase, and that is the toughest phase of all to get through. How you go from there to becoming the star that he became is really, really tough."
It was a telephone call in early 1990 that Jarrett cites as his biggest break. Neil Bonnett had suffered a severe head injury at Darlington Raceway and would be unable to finish the season with the Wood Brothers.
Jarrett was tapped to fill the seat, and it was there that he earned his first Cup victory.
The year was 1991 and the site was Michigan International Speedway.
For the final two laps, Jarrett and Davey Allison dueled side-by-side, sometimes rubbing sheet metal, with Jarrett eventually emerging the victor by a scant 10 inches.
Still, Jarrett didn't feel he belonged in stock car racing's premier series until six years later at Robert Yates Racing after having won two Daytona 500s. It was a feeling that didn't come without another struggle.
Jarrett left Joe Gibbs Racing after three years to accept a one-year position at RYR while Ernie Irvan recovered from a life-threatening head injury he'd suffered at Michigan in August 1994. Yet, with the way the relationship began, no one would have ever envisioned it concluding in a series championship.
Jarrett's first six months with RYR were a nightmare. Many questioned his ability, and different racing philosophies caused intense disagreements between Jarrett, crew chief Larry McReynolds and Yates. During Charlotte Motor Speedway's race weeks in May 1995, the simmering pot boiled over when Hut Stricklin stepped into Jarrett's race car for a practice session while Jarrett stood in the garage. A six-hour meeting involving Robert and Doug Yates, McReynolds and Jarrett ensued immediately after the All-Star Race and before the Coca-Cola 600. When Jarrett left the meeting, he didn't know if he would still have a job after the Coca-Cola 600.
It was an extremely difficult time for Jarrett, one that his father noted he worked through because he possesses a remarkable ability to handle things in a special way. It eventually was the incident that turned things around for Jarrett at RYR.
"We came out in 1997 and contended for the championship," Jarrett recalled. "I think we won seven races. I said, 'There's no doubt that I belong here and I can do this.' I knew all along that I could do it, but I was finally in the situation that made all of that real. Even though each week had a lot of work to it, I felt then that I was in a place where I really belonged."
It wasn't until 1999, however, that Jarrett achieved the sport's ultimate goal-the series championship.
"You have to hand it to the tenacious nature of his character that he hung on and made it work," Wheeler said. "I think it's one of the success stories that we'll be looking at for a long time."
Even though Jarrett's father was known as "Gentleman Ned" during his racing days, he possessed an intense competitive nature that he passed on to his son. "He was a dirt-track specialist," Jarrett said about his father.
"You had to have that competitive fire inside you to be successful at that.
So we have it in us. As Jarretts, that's what we've done all our life is compete.
"I started playing baseball when I was 5, so that's all I've ever known is competing. My kids are the same way. We just can't sit down and have a normal Monopoly game. It is about winning. You don't have to show that in everything you do; you have to have this other side to you. My dad and my mom have been very special in that respect, to show us that it's OK to be competitive, but you have to have that compassion."
Jarrett readily admits his career was a struggle, but then notes "there's nothing wrong with that."
"I think it made me appreciate things even more," he noted. "I've been very fortunate. If you gave me a chance to go back and do it all over again, I wouldn't have changed a thing about it.
"Even though I had a few injuries along the way, nothing ever kept me out of a race car. There were a couple of times you got there on crutches, but you got there and you made it work. (It was) something else to help you focus and stay determined."
That "something else" for Jarrett to focus on after his driving career materialized a year ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway when Jarrett joined Punch, Andy Petree (who worked on Jarrett's race car when they were teenagers), and his father in the broadcast booth for ESPN's telecast of the then Busch race. It was quite clear then that Jarrett would follow in his father's ESPN footsteps, and it's a career move that Jarrett admitted has made stepping out of his race car much easier.
"I realize that is another challenge," Jarrett said. "Not that I conquered the challenge of driving a race car and being successful, but I did have a very successful career. I know that my time, as far as being in the seat of that race car, has come and been there. I'm on the other side of that now and I'm OK with that.
"I think the position ESPN has put me in with the people I work with and the opportunity they've given me, they've made it a very easy transition. But I also am smart enough to realize there are a lot of areas that I have to improve in, so that's a new challenge for me and I like that challenge."
In honor of Jarrett and in appreciation of the fans who have supported him, Charlotte Motor Speedway officials have created "DJ's Deal," a special Friday-Saturday (May 16-17) All-Star Weekend ticket package for only $44.
Friday's ticket is good for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race qualifying session and the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race. The Saturday ticket is for the weekend's main event and Jarrett's finale, the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.
The "DJ's Deal" package and tickets for all May events at Charlotte Motor Speedway, including the May 17 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and the May 25 Coca-Cola 600, can be purchased by calling 1-800-455-FANS or online.