- Mike Massaro
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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dale Jarrett will never forget his first Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led one lap, finished fifth and ended the day drenched in champagne. Five years ago this week Jarrett clinched his first and only Winston Cup championship.
Just a half decade removed from that crowning achievement Jarrett now faces what was inconceivable in 1999, a season without winning. If Jarrett doesn't find his way to victory lane Sunday it will end his streak of 11 straight seasons with a win.
"You like to think once you reach a certain level that you're not gonna come back from there," Jarrett says. "We got used to winning two, three, four races a year and that was a lot of fun. Now we sit here at the end of 2004 without a victory, it puts you in your place."
Last year Jarrett seemingly hit rock bottom. He finished outside the standing's top-10 for the first time since 1995. Although he did score one win, he ended the year 26th overall, his worst point finish since his rookie season in 1987.
This season there's been a modest improvement. Jarrett could end the season as high as 12th. And despite not having a win, he has twice as many top-10's and six top-fives versus only one a year ago.
Though the turnaround is not complete, credit is due. Robert Yates Racing made several key personnel changes at the conclusion of last season that did have an impact. Eddie D'hondt was hired as general manager and crew chief Mike Ford was lured away from Evernham Motorsports.
Chemistry appeared instant when Jarrett won the Bud Shootout and finished 10th in the Daytona 500. But since then, Jarrett, who has accepted the past two seasons as rebuilding years, describes the season as a learning process.
"That may be hard for people to imagine because after as many years as I've been in it why would you still be learning," says Jarrett, "but you're always doing that."
Understanding the car and what it needs to be compatible with Jarrett's driving style has been the biggest challenge. After using two different chassis builders in 2003, RYR has built their own for the entire season.
While admittedly humbled by the past two seasons Jarrett is adamant there's been no second guessing and scoffs at those who suggest he's past his prime.
"I just don't see [age] as being a factor at all," asserts Jarrett, who turns 48 next week. "I think that I've shown whenever we have the equipment that doesn't come into play whatsoever."
Jarrett's contract with RYR runs through 2006 and discussions are already being held about a 2007 extension. Retirement, Jarrett says, isn't a consideration perhaps because his desire and expectations remain high.
"I don't know that people see how intense I may really be on the inside," Jarrett says. "Whenever we don't perform that bothers me a lot. I take it very personally. I want to win all the time."
With that type of drive, one would expect that Jarrett -- who ranks 14th in the standings -- needs to be talked off the ledge. That, however, is far from the case.
"It's a tough business here," Jarrett calmly explains. "There's only one winner out here on Sundays so you have to kind of put things in perspective and understand at times what your capabilities are as a race team."
While the 88 team knows they didn't get things ironed out for this season they're already working on next. If there's a silver lining in their failure to qualify for the "Chase for the Nextel Cup," it's that Jarrett has been able to spend time over the last month testing the new 2005 Taurus.
"We're gonna work our way through it in a way that we're going to be very proud of when we come out of this and when we get back to victory lane," say Jarrett confidently, "knowing the hard work and the effort that it took on everyone's part to make that happen."
Still, there's work to be done this season. Jarrett has one last shot to keep the streak alive. He starts 27th in Sunday's season finale hoping to prevent the shutout and, once again, end the day drenched in champagne at Homestead.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
2dLaurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders