Jarrett takes success in stride

Updated: February 20, 2005, 12:40 PM ET
By Justin Hagey | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- That old familiar buzz is back, hovering around the No. 88 UPS hauler.

Dale Jarrett will sit on the Daytona 500 pole Sunday, and for that reason, he can't walk around the garage area at Daytona International Speedway without feeling a tangible vibe of energy.

And being besieged by cameras.

This might seem like standard operating procedure for a man who has won a Nextel Cup championship and three Daytona 500's, but lately it's not.

After enjoying a six-season run from 1996 to 2001, when he finished no worse than fifth in the final Cup standings, Jarrett hasn't been close to that level of success since.

But he has been here before, too. Before becoming one of NASCAR's most successful drivers, Jarrett fought to keep his racing dreams alive.

Sure he had the Jarrett name -- his father, Ned, was a two-time Cup champion -- but that only opened a few sponsorship doors. The rest, as they say, was up to him.

"I've always known you're going to have to work hard in this business no matter what your name might be," Jarrett said. "Your name's not going to keep you around here for very long."

He has been around a long time, having begun his Cup career in 1987, and he credits making the right career moves at the right time for his enormous success.

Besides the Daytona trifecta and the 1999 Cup title, Jarrett has the distinction of being second to Jeff Gordon on NASCAR's career winnings chart, having won a stunning $46,915,666 in prize money.

This last detail comes, unexpectedly, as a surprise to Jarrett.

"I don't know that I knew that," he said, a grin breaking out on his face. "You may be telling me something there."

To understand why the money isn't a bigger deal to Jarrett, one would have to head to Hickory, N.C. With a population of about 35,000, it boasts a signpost on the way into town that celebrates its star driver's '99 title.

A short drive over to Newton, and one will find a sign commemorating Ned's two Cup titles, in 1961 and 1965. The Jarretts share the distinction with Lee and Richard Petty of being the only father-son champion duos.

And in Hickory, where Jarrett was a four-sport star in high school, the guy with the God-given gift to excel at just about everything he ever did stays grounded.

"That's everything that you want," Jarrett says of Hickory. "Our family is still there, [my wife] Kelley and my family are both still around there, and that's more important than anything else.

"Hickory has everything -- a great school system for our kids to grow up in, good athletics for them to be a part of, the people there are very kind to the Jarrett family. You know, I don't know why we'd ever want to leave."

And so they haven't.

Ned Jarrett -- whose post-driving career in broadcasting included calling Richard Petty's 200th career victory by radio with President Reagan chiming in -- is glad he doesn't have to travel far to watch his grandchildren grow up.

He gets to entertain them with tales of when their father was younger, such as the time Dale decided he had a plan to avoid mowing the lawn on a difficult hillside at Hickory Speedway, where Ned was manager for nine years and Dale helped maintain the grounds.

"He thought, 'There's got to be an easier way than this,' so he got the bright idea -- he found this guy who had some goats," Ned recalled. "He decided he'd bring these goats over and not have to mow it. He was into golf at the time, so he traded some golf clubs for the goats."

Only the goat solution proved problematic. Instead of munching on grass, as everyone expected they would, they began eating cars left nearby from weekly demolition derbies held at the racetrack.

"Those doggone goats," Ned said. "They ate the vinyl tops and all the upholstery out of the cars. That surprised us."

It might be the only time Dale tried taking an easy way out. From his beginning as a driver at Hickory in the Limited Sportsman division in 1977 until he hooked up with the Wood Brothers in 1990, Jarrett struggled financially and spent long hours away from his family.

Those were the times he called upon his dad for advice.

"It was not easy for him to follow his dream," Ned said. "It was tough, very tough, because I didn't have the resources to fund him. But I'd tell him on a number of occasions that we can do anything in life that we want to accomplish if we really go after it.

"And he shared that belief with me. That was part of his philosophy, and he always believed that if he's patient enough and worked hard enough, things that are meant to be will come."

Now 48, Jarrett has accomplished more than he ever set out to do. He never made it his life's ambition to win the Cup title at all costs; all he wanted was a chance to compete.

And that's still all Jarrett wants. When people ask him the inevitable retirement questions, he looks them in the eye and tells them he's still having fun. His contract with Robert Yates Racing goes through 2006, but Jarrett surprised even his parents last week by saying he would be happy to drive in '07, too.

His father says that desire was always evident, be it on the racetrack, golf course (Dale turned down a South Carolina golf scholarship), basketball court, football field or baseball diamond.

"The competitiveness that he has makes him want to prove not only to himself but to the world that he still can do it," Ned said. "I think he still can do it. Of course, I'm his father, but he keeps himself in very good physical condition and maintains a positive attitude. I think he's still capable of winning races and possibly even another championship."

Jarrett would be considered by most observers a long-shot title prospect, but there's no denying he has a shot at reaching the Chase for the Nextel Cup, in which the top 10 drivers battle for the title over the final 10 races.

A shot is all Jarrett ever wanted, and it's all he says he wants as he prepares to start the 47th Daytona 500 from the pole. And judging by the way his 88 car is looking on the track, nobody can deny him this much.

"As long as I could compete, I was going to be happy," Jarrett said. "I wanted to be successful, I was going to do everything it took to become successful, but I don't know that I was going to be sorely disappointed if I didn't make it to the top.

"As long as I could compete and have chances at winning, that was enough to drive me on. Last year gave me some hope that we could become competitive again. And that's all that I want, to have that chance to be competitive and have chances to win races."

As Jarrett walked from his hauler away from a throng of cameras and commotion that began as soon as he began speaking with a reporter, he had a bounce in his step. It has been missing lately, but it's back.

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.

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