Dale Jarrett's Daytona dream has come true three times
Only five drivers have won the Great American Race three times. Only two have won it at least four times. Dale Jarrett can join Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough in that elite group, writes Marty Smith, if he can qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Updated: February 13, 2008, 4:48 PM ETBy Marty Smith | ESPN.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Jarrett remembers it in almost photographic detail, the tangible disappointment.
It was Feb. 24, 1963, and he and older brother Glen sat on the back of their parents' car and watched as their father, Ned, winced in frustration after running out of gas leading the Daytona 500.
At that moment he knew: This is the most important race in the world.Three decades later, on Valentine's Day 1993, Jarrett would win the most important race in the world, passing Dale Earnhardt to lead Joe Gibbs' No. 18 team into Victory Lane on the sport's grandest stage, his father coaching him home from the broadcast booth in what remains one of the most genuine, indelible memories in NASCAR's 60 years.And now, 15 years later, Jarrett is a three-time Daytona 500 champion, the self-described "American racing dream" personified. But he wants one more shot. Until Thursday afternoon, he won't know whether he'll get that chance. But if he can hurdle the top-35 rule and race his way into the 50th Daytona 500, he is confident a storybook exit is feasible."Everybody that gets in the race has a chance to win -- it's such a wild-card race," Jarrett said Wednesday, leaning against the garage wall as his team tuned the UPS Toyota for practice. "I have the car, if we can get in. It's just so competitive, and when you're outside the top 35, you have to put together a perfect 60 laps [in the Gatorade Duel]. You can't afford any mistakes. Once we get past that, yes, we can win the Daytona 500."And if he fails to qualify?"I haven't allowed myself to think that way," Jarrett said. "Somebody asked me what I'd watch on Sunday if I don't make it, and I haven't even thought about that. "I plan on watching it from that seat right there."He remembers well the first time he sat in a racing seat at Daytona. It was 1982, and he was starting his own Busch Series program. He didn't have a car ready for Daytona, but Glen had qualified for the Busch race already, and turned over the reins of his ride to little brother to take a spin. "It never seemed so big," Dale said, grinning. "It seemed bigger than life when I was running around the infield as a kid. But the first time I really got on the racetrack, I swear this place had to be 5 miles long. It just seemed so big and so wide and had room everywhere. And now I wonder how in the world we run two- and three-wide. It's bigger than life. A lot of dreams come true here."Like that day in 1993.
AP Photo/John RaouxDale Jarrett, right, and Bill Elliott have five Daytona 500 wins between them.
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Step up, man. On the record -- who's your pick to win the Daytona 500? It has to be Junior! Go 88!-- Jay, Venice Beach, Calif.Nope. Sorry, Jay. It'll be Junior's longtime drafting buddy, Tony Stewart. That's right, Toyota to Victory Lane in the 50th Daytona 500. The Hendrick boys are ridiculous, and want this victory terribly. And judging by the Shootout, they're more than willing to accommodate one another in advancing through the field. But I just have a feeling about the 20. It's the last hole on his résumé, and this is his 10th shot.Staying with Stewart Marty, Your column on Joey Arnold was a big time wake-up call this morning for my family. It was just what we needed. My husband and I were having a bad day ... our son was crying and we scrambled to get the kids ready for school. And then once they were off, we read your story together and had tears in our eyes. We don't hear these kinds of stories enough. It's so good to know that people in this world still care about others. Way to go, Tony Jr.
-- Denise Macon, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.I had a similar reaction to hearing the story, Denise. Rarely does Eury get emotional, aside from the occasional fist pump or high-five, so to see the genuine pain in his eyes when discussing it with him struck me. To see Eury's expression when recounting Arnold's comment as to why he was in the shop just days after the death of his 5-year-old son, Cayden, was harrowing: "He said, 'This is my best chance to win the Daytona 500, and I want to be a part of it,'" Eury said.Wow. Dedication. And maybe, racing as refuge. Thank you for reading that, Denise.Marty, Love your work! They keep talking about Busch having to use a past champion's provisional, but wasn't he easily in the top 35 last year? I believe top 10. It has me dumbfounded -- any help would be appreciated greatly.Jason, hometown unknownNASCAR enabled team owner Roger Penske to transfer the owner points from Busch's No. 2 to Sam Hornish's No. 77, thereby guaranteeing Hornish in the field for the first five races of the season via the top-35 rule. Busch, then, starts the year outside the top-35 threshold but is the most recent champion without a guaranteed spot. Thus he is eligible ahead of Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott, the other two past champions in the field, for the past champion's provisional.Busch may not need to use it at all, and if not, then Jarrett would get it. I asked Jarrett's team owner, Michael Waltrip, his thoughts on NASCAR's decision to let Penske move Busch's points to Hornish, since it could conceivably disallow one of his cars in the show. He didn't hesitate. "It's the right move, absolutely the right move by NASCAR," Waltrip said. "Owners need to be able to do those things when it's best for their company."That's it for this week. The mixing cereal thing is gaining steam. Folks are enjoying it. Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
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