- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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For one, rare week, Dale Jarrett gets to live the life of an everyday father.
Part of the final off week in the Nextel Cup Series schedule was expected to be spent watching Karsyn, his 15-year-old daughter, in the AAU Nationals in Roanoke, Va. Then he plans to head to watch 10-year-old son Zach in the state all-star baseball tournament outside Raleigh, N.C.
"I'll be spending time with the kids, so it'll be a lot of fun," Jarrett said of the plans for his free time.
Yet it's a safe guess he'll be thinking about his Robert Yates Racing Ford all the while. Because even though this week is free, the next six will go a long way toward determining how he'll remember 2005.
In 2004, Jarrett fell short of the field for the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup. He sits in the coveted 10th spot in points right now, but pursuers are nipping at his heels, so a bad finish or two could foil him once again.
A couple of strong runs, though, would go a long way to securing a berth in the Chase. And Jarrett knows that will likely mean his Taurus has to perform better in these next six weeks than it has been.
"The season has been, I would call it average at best," Jarrett says. "We haven't, obviously, performed the way that we would like. If we had, then we would be further up into the top 10, but we've had good weekends and then a lot of what I call average weekends.
"We find ourselves racing from 12th to 16th a lot and getting a lot of finishes in there, and I think that's been the key so far is that we have finished. We haven't had a lot of problems as far as mechanical problems go or getting involved in accidents, so we've made the most of what we've done so far."
Teammate Elliott Sadler sits ninth in points, so it's shaping up as a solid season for RYR, which struggled the past few years before Sadler won two races and made the Chase last year.
Jarrett, with interim crew chief Bill Wilburn at the helm, has been making progress throughout the year, but he knows finishing between 12th and 16th the next six races might not be enough. Quite simply, he's looking for more.
"We've worked extremely hard to try to make ourselves better, and I think we're learning some things, but it's been a slow process for us and one we have to be really careful with," Jarrett says. "We don't want to get too far out on the limb and really knock ourselves completely out of this. As much as we would like to make wholesale changes as far as our setups go to see what may work, we can't really do that within the races. We're just kind of inching our way there, and I think everything is still wide open."
Mike Ford left the team in May -- with Wilburn taking over -- after he and Jarrett could never quite get on the same page. Part of the problem was that the teams of Jarrett and Sadler weren't really working as one.
Wilburn, though, is playing a different role, one that seems to be working well at the moment.
"Bill has been asked to come in and not necessarily be a crew chief, so to speak, because you've got to have someone in that position, but his job was just to kind of orchestrate and organize things between Elliott's team with [crew chief] Todd Parrott and his engineers, and with our team and with our engineer, and then with our car chief," Jarrett says. "It's two totally different roles, and Bill's done a good job in that respect and making all of that work and carrying the information between the two teams.
"We still have work to do. We still have cars to build to get things more alike so that we can compare apples to apples [between the teams], but he's done a good job of that and a good job of calling the races. It's hard to make comparisons [between Ford and Wilburn] because they've had two totally different roles, really, even though they may have the same title."
And although both Jarrett and Sadler are in the top 10, Jarrett says Robert Yates Racing still needs to get stronger. And he believes changes made within the operation this season are just starting to pay off, which makes him optimistic about the future.
He also knows there will come a time when RYR will expand to a third team, though it has yet to be determined whether that move will happen in time for 2006.
For now, Jarrett's focus -- at least after watching his children play this week -- will be on the next six races. Although making the Chase is a priority, he says he hasn't really changed his approach on the track.
The one main difference is that he might pay a bit more attention to whom he's racing at any particular moment.
"I've just tried to be smarter on the racetrack and keep myself out of positions that might create a problem for us -- realizing that right now we aren't the team to go lead laps and run in the top five every week," Jarrett says. "So we have to make the most of it in some way. It's not that I'm going with the conscious thought of, 'OK, I'm just gonna ride around here and try to finish in the top 10,' because you can't do that anymore. If you go out to ride around, you're not gonna finish in the top 25, so you have to be aggressive.
"You still do the same things. You want to run as well as you possibly can, but I try to keep myself out of position that could create a problem and cost us points on that day. We still know in these last [six] races that if we're gonna make the top 10, then we're gonna have to finish somewhere around that top 10 every week. If not, we've got guys that are coming hard from behind us and there are guys in front of us that are running in that top 10 every week unless they have a problem, so we've got to do our job."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
Dale Jarrett has gotten a lot out of what he calls an average season. But he knows his team must raise its game in the next six races.