Commentary

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 ET
By 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.

[+] EnlargeDale Jarrett and Bill Elliott
AP Photo/John RaouxDale Jarrett, right, and Bill Elliott have five Daytona 500 wins between them.

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.

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"You're always looking to pay back your parents for all they've done, even though they're never looking for anything -- those of us who have kids know that," Jarrett said. "But that was a little bit of a way for me to say thank you to my dad. We could show the world and tell the world that we're a close family. That was a very special day for the whole Jarrett family."

And again in 1996. And again in 2000. Just five drivers in NASCAR history can say they've won the biggest race in the world three times: Richard Petty won seven, Cale Yarborough four, and three each for Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett.

"This has been a great race for me, kind of defined my career over the years," Jarrett said. "I've had three days that made me look like the best driver. That wasn't necessarily the case, but I was the lucky guy to be setting in those cars three times.

"Every time I come through here I get that same special feeling. Running around here as a kid I knew it was a special place, but after seeing the disappointment on my dad's face in 1963, and then to watch other drivers along the way that accomplished so much, but never win the Daytona 500, you realize just how much it means, and how lucky you are to win this race.

"This is just a very special place. I know I've said that a couple times, but it is. It's a race every driver that comes into NASCAR dreams about winning. I'm at the end of that opportunity. Is it a tall order to say I'd like to win it, yeah. But this race has made a lot of dreams come true."

Marty,

Somebody has to give it to the fans straight. Why is everyone skipping over Stewart punching Busch? Did it happen, Marty? Tell us what happened.

-- Sarah Baccus, Fort Wayne, Ind.

First of all, Sarah, NASCAR sent more than one clear message to the industry Tuesday with the decision to place Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch on six weeks' probation, and nothing more, for the Friday Night Fight: 1. Brian France wasn't just whistlin' Dixie last month when he said NASCAR would open up its tolerance for drivers to show raw emotion; and 2. The Phone Booth is vacuum-sealed.

Now, the punch. In a week bursting with meaty story lines -- Junior's storybook triumph in the Budweiser Shootout, Michael Waltrip's ongoing resurrection and the initial step for Jimmie Johnson in a potential march into history -- most of the questions centered on that swing.

Multiple sources close to both drivers confirmed it happened in a closed-door meeting with NASCAR officials Friday night. Verbal quickly escalated to physical, and physical, according to sources, lasted for all of one punch. That's all we have.

The drivers aren't talking, both quick to deflect and dismiss it as they look anxiously forward to the Daytona 500. And NASCAR isn't talking, again making certain to note that what happens inside the mobile command post stays inside the mobile command post.

(So, then, shall we call the NASCAR 18-wheeler "Vegas" henceforth? For four years, people have searched for a suitable replacement moniker for what, when Winston was the lead sponsor of the Cup Series, was termed "The Big Red Truck." The Phone Booth was the initial thought. But now I like Vegas -- the whole what happens here, stays here mantra.)

Competitors now know unequivocally that they have full confidentiality in voicing whatever displeasure they may have. That was NASCAR's biggest concern in this instance -- that the competitors would never question the privacy of matters broached inside the trailer, no matter how inflammatory the respective situation may be.

And it also redefines the term "probation" in NASCAR.

NASCAR officials are still mulling what the term means, but plan for more specific parameters for drivers placed on probation. Vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said if a driver is placed on probation, he'll know what that means and for how long, and repeat offenses will be treated more severely with more specific punishments.

For example, if Stewart and Busch tangle again during the six-week probation, NASCAR will react harshly.

"Expect us to drop the hammer," vice president of communications Jim Hunter said.

Pemberton said they could go as far as suspension.

NASCAR's decision is a good thing. We need emotion in this sport.

Marty,

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 unknown

NASCAR 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.