Jarrett hoping to continue rise

Updated: June 18, 2004, 9:59 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

With a strong run at Pocono under his belt, Dale Jarrett headed to Michigan International Speedway with some confidence.

Part of the reason? There's only about 200 points between him and a chance to compete for a Nextel Cup title.

But Jarrett's not preoccuppied with the top 10 chase right now. He's focusing on improvement -- and he's done plenty of that this season.

"I think we're finally headed in the right direction," Jarrett said.

On Friday, Jarrett did struggle in qualifying, forcing him to start 37th for Sunday's race at Michigan. Still, he hopes that come race time he'll have what it takes to continue his climb from 26th in the standings.

"Well (this) car certainly performed well all weekend at Pocono from qualifying to practice and definitely in the race," Jarrett said. "Michigan and Pocono are obviously different tracks, but some of the same principles come into play. Aerodynamics and horsepower are essential at Michigan like they are at Pocono.

"This car handles really well and I just felt good in the car. As disappointing as Sunday was in Pocono, I have to be a little excited about the prospects of running this car in Michigan. I had a great feel with it and I have to believe we'll see more of the same this weekend in Michigan."

Drivers often say it takes a love for a track to succeed there. If that's the case, Jarrett should be OK this weekend. Michigan, after all, is one of his favorite tracks.

"Obviously I am partial to that track because that is where I got my first win and that is always going to make Michigan special," said Jarrett, who has since added 29 more victories. "But I think that more than that it is a track that offers all the things that a driver looks for in racing.

"The track is extremely wide and there is plenty of room for side-by-side racing and the track surface is conducive for that type of racing. Plus, there are multiple grooves at Michigan so that if your car isn't working well in one groove there is a chance that you can find another groove where your car will work. I've won races running up high against the wall, and I've run races running right along the bottom of the track so it just offers a lot of options to a driver."

And those options, which he's mastered along the years, haven't changed much over time.

"The cars, with their aero and engine packages, have changed, but the way you drive Michigan hasn't really changed that much," he said. "You may change the way that you drive throughout the 400 miles on Sunday because there are going to be times that the bottom of the racetrack is going to be the quickest way around. You're probably going to move up to about the middle of the track, and then possibly the quick way around might even get to the very top of the race track. That changes throughout the course of 400 miles as the conditions of the track changes.

"Obviously, our speeds are a little quicker than what they used to be, but the way that you drive and the things that you do are pretty much the same."

But as much as Jarrett loves Michigan, and as adept as he is at racing there, it isn't all about him. The No. 88 Ford team, in the midst of a major restructuring and rebuilding effort, will play a big role.

"Of course it all goes back to handling," he said. "If your car doesn't handle well then all the horsepower in the world isn't going to help you if you can't take advantage of it exiting or getting into the corners. The one thing that does set Michigan apart from every other track though is the multiple racing grooves.

"That's why I like this track so much. You may not have a good handle on the car in the bottom groove but it may work great in the middle or upper groove. That's what sets this track apart from other tracks we visit is the options available to the driver and team."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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