Jarrett Revs Up For Historic 500th Winston Cup Start
Posted March 13, 2003 8:06 a.m. EST
DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Jarrett, driver of the No. 88 UPS Taurus, will be making the 500th start of his NASCAR Winston Cup career Sunday at one of the sport's most historic tracks -- Darlington Raceway.
There may not be another track on the circuit that has provided more memorable moments for Jarrett, who has won the spring race at Darlington three times.
As he prepared to go after his second victory of the 2003 season, Jarrett said he can't believe how the time leading to his milestone start has flown by.
"It's hard to believe it's been 500 races," he said. "There are a lot of them I can remember and a lot of them I can forget, too."
As for Darlington Raceway, Jarrett said: "Yeah, it is a pretty special place.
"There are a lot of things that have taken place there, whether it was my career or my dad's career," Jarrett said, referring to his father, Ned, a former racer. "I remember being there when he won the Southern 500 and basically clinched the championship in 1965. But, aside from that, I've been very fortunate as a driver to do well there."
Jarrett said being able to compete against the best drivers in history, drivers like Harry Gant and Dale Earnhardt, helped his success at Darlington and kept his desire for racing strong.
"I just asked Harry Gant one day how you get around Darlington when I was in the Busch Series, and he explained how he did it," Jarrett said. "I watched David Pearson, and then being able to compete against him in the Busch Series, and then watching Dale Earnhardt helped, too.
"Those are three different styles. But I picked up a little bit from each of them, and you utilize each of those styles at different points in probably every race."
Darlington is called "The Track Too Tough To Tame." Jarrett said that's a fitting description.
"The challenge is unbelievable," he said. "I mean, you can't go out and build tracks like that anymore. Apparently, you can't, because nobody does. But it's just so much fun.
"It's as hard of an afternoon as you'll have as a driver, but it's very gratifying and rewarding if you can be fortunate enough to stay off of the wall and do well. The two ends are so totally different. Trying to get a car setup for both is almost impossible, so the driver really has to do his part."
Jarrett was 8 years old when he first visited the track. He watched his father win the Southern 500 on Sept. 6, 1965.
"After Victory Lane and going back home to Camden, which is just down the road, I remember cars and people were everywhere when we pulled up to our house," Jarrett said, recalling that day. "I think the whole town of Camden was there, but it made me realize right then that what my dad did was a little bit special and different.
"That was pretty neat to see everybody rally around him. The operation they had in Camden was something everybody knew about and had probably been by to see it, so it was nice to see everyone come out and show their support."
Jarrett hopes to receive similar support after Sunday's race, when he hopes to repeat his performance of March 23, 1997, when he won at Darlington for the first time.
"That was a big thing," he said, "because you know how difficult that race track is for 400 or 500 miles.
"When you look at the names that have done well there and know that you can put yourself in that group of people that have won races there is pretty special. We had a great car, and it was just fun racing. With the challenge that the track presents, you know as a driver that you've had a big part in it. Darlington isn't like some other places. It's special to win anywhere, but extremely special when you do there."
Jarrett said he also can still remember his first Winston Cup start, 499 races ago, on April 24, 1984, in Martinsville.
"I started the race for Emanuel Zervakis and had a great day," he said. "I got a little driving lesson from my friend, Dale Earnhardt, and we had a lot of fun that day. It was quite an experience for me."
Jarrett made his stock-car debut seven years earlier, in April of 1977, at Hickory Speedway.
"I remember I had been able to practice twice before," he said, "But we always had problems, and on the night of the race, I actually got there late. When I drove that night, I started in the rear and finished ninth, but I had more fun than I thought was possible.
"Bobby Isaac went to my dad and said: 'I thought you said Dale was driving tonight.' I guess going from 24th to ninth was pretty impressive in 25 laps. I didn't look at it that way because I had so much fun, but it was nice to have someone like that who could watch a race and recognize what could be down the road."
Jarrett said he was hooked on racing from that moment on.
"I always thought that it would be fun," he said.
"I was fortunate growing up to either have enough athletic ability or be on good enough teams that we had a lot of success at a lot of different things. I knew what winning and having a good time was about in athletics. But when I got in the car that night and finished that race, I remember literally running to the stands to tell my dad that racing is what I want to do."
He has had an outstanding career. Jarrett has 31 Winston Cup wins. He is one of just four drivers to win the Daytona 500 at least three times, and he won the 1999 Winston Cup championship.
Jarrett holds the longest active winning streak among Winston Cup drivers, posting at least one victory in each of the last 11 seasons.
"I didn't know how I was going to keep racing after the first one because I had no money," he said. "I had some good friends and good supporters, thank goodness, but I knew right then that's exactly what I wanted to do."