Jarrett and team in the hunt

Updated: August 12, 2004, 7:49 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

Dale Jarrett
Jarrett

Dale Jarrett's not yet sure what he'll be celebrating come New Year's Eve. But it's a good bet that for the second straight year, he'll be welcoming the new year with open arms and big plans.

Even if Jarrett doesn't end up chasing the inaugural Nextel Cup championship come September, those who do qualify will at least know Jarrett's been in the hunt. If a similar format had existed a year ago, Jarrett would have been an afterthought -- as he was for most of that 2003 campaign.

Yet to win this season, as he heads to Watkins Glen, Jarrett sits 13th in points -- only 55 points behind 10th-place Ryan Newman, the last driver currently eligible for the 10-race season-ending playoff. Thirteenth still is not up to the standards the 1999 champion sets for himself, but it's a far cry from last year.

Jarrett won the second race of the '03 season, but it was all downhill from there as he ended up 26th in points, the lowest finish of any season in which he's run the full schedule. Back in January, he did his best to put the year in perspective.

"Last year was a trying time, but when that clock rang 12 midnight, there wasn't anyone in this United States happier to see 2004 get here than what I was," Jarrett said. "I kind of decided right then that I made it through the year, I lived through it and I'm putting it behind me."

Jarrett's done just that with a resurrected Robert Yates Racing team. Crew chief Mike Ford rejoined the operation after heading up Bill Elliott's team the past few years and helped reorganize a team that was no longer atop its game.

Progress came in fits and starts early on, but has been more noticeable of late. It may not pay off in a championship this year, but at least Jarrett's laying a solid foundation for next season.

So when Dec. 31 rolls around this year, Jarrett will greet it with a smile. How wide the smile is to be determined, but he's satisfied with how things are going thus far.

"We started off probably just average, we hit a little bit of a spell where we didn't have much good fortune and along with not-so-good fortune we had a few races that we just didn't compete well at," Jarrett says. "The last two months have been much better competing-wise. We've at least been competitive.

"A little above average, I would say, but we've made great strides from where we were and I think that our team is headed in the right direction. It's a far cry from last year. You have to commend Mike Ford for what he's done. We're competing on a much higher level than what we have been."

Ford, who worked under then-crew chief Todd Parrott when Jarrett won his championship, knew better than to count on being a top-10 team at the season's outset. He realized a lot had gone wrong for Jarrett to end a year 26th in points and figured it would take time to get things back on track.

That it's happening quicker than expected is a bonus, but Ford's not yet satisfied.

"We started the season off pretty much as a rebuilding season, we had a long way to go to get competitive," Ford says. "We've made progress over the season. We made a lot of mistakes, particularly early, and we're still making a few but they're getting further and fewer between.

"The main objective starting the year was to gain some consistency and work on building the team and we've done that to an extent. We're in the top-10 chase here and I didn't foresee us being a top-10 team at the beginning of the season. We've got that in front of us, but our main focus is still to continue building the race team."

I think that our team is headed in the right direction. It's a far cry from last year. You have to commend Mike Ford for what he's done. We're competing on a much higher level than what we have been.
Dale Jarrett on his reversal of fortune after a rough '03

Initially, Jarrett wasn't a fan of the new concept that will see 10 drivers battling for the championship over the final 10 races. But his perspective changed even before the season began and he soon saw the positives that could emerge from the system.

Now that he's in the thick of things, so much the better. If nothing else, he knows the next five races are going to be more interesting than if he were 13th in the standings at this point a year ago.

"It's going to be crazy because everybody's trying to get there, but there's nothing more that you can do other than race hard and let it kind of take care of itself," Jarrett says. "Everybody wants to be in that top 10 for those last 10 races, but it's going to change each and every week. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to look at it and analyze it and see and speculate as to what could happen and what might happen. & The real battle is from sixth back to 15th, so it's very entertaining."

Not satisfied with his 18th-place finish at Infineon Raceway in June, Jarrett recently tested at Watkins Glen. Ford says the goal was to simply get Jarrett track time to make sure he's in a "road-racing frame of mind."

That shouldn't be hard for Jarrett, who greatly prefers The Glen to Infineon Raceway.

"Of all the road courses we visit on the schedule or for testing purposes, Watkins Glen is more conducive to our type of cars. It always allowed us to race hard and pass," Jarrett says. "The road courses bring out all of a drivers' ability. I've had good days and really bad days at Watkins Glen. One thing has always been the same at the Glen though and that is if you're going to be successful, you pretty much have to drive 90 laps out of control.

"We know going in that qualifying is going to be important although it didn't always used to be that way. We used to be able to use different strategies, but that's not really the case anymore. You know how far you can make it on fuel and you pretty much want to get in as soon as you get in the window to where you can make it on distance. But it is important to get a good start because the competition is just so close."

Jarrett just believes he'll be ahead of more of his competitors than he was in Sonoma seven weeks ago. The testing he's done at the Glen over the years has helped his confidence and he thinks it will pay dividends once again. In his last six starts at the track, the 47-year-old has four top-seven finishes.

While Jarrett hopes the next five races set the stage for a come-from-behind championship, he knows it might take until next year before his team is truly back. The thing is, he's prepared to take the rebuilding in stride no matter what transpires.

"If we weren't getting anywhere in our rebuilding here, I would probably be frustrated, but I feel like we've made great strides this year," Jarrett says. "Again, unless you're right there on the inside and know how far down we've gone, I'm not sure that you can really appreciate where we're at.

"Even though there are still areas we have to improve in, I think that we're working hard to make those improvements and I see those improvements coming slowing in some areas, but I do have some time here. And because I love to compete and because I understand the nature of the business and being a part of it for such a long time, I understand that these things as quickly as we want them to happen don't always happen like that. So I'm very upbeat."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.