Jarrett's car winds up in Victory Lane
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Jarrett knew after just four
laps he was still the favorite in the Daytona 500.
Any worries he might have had about his powerful No. 88 Ford,
damaged in a crash in the final practice, disappeared as he drove
confidently around Daytona International Speedway -- a track that
has become his personal playground.
Jarrett began defense of his first Winston Cup championship
Sunday by winning NASCAR's biggest race for the third time in eight
years with a late pass of surprise contender Johnny Benson.
That matched Bobby Allison's total, leaving Jarrett trailing
only Cale Yarborough with four and Richard Petty with seven.
Jarrett also won the 400-mile race here last July.
"Richard Petty made his way across pit road and shook my
hand," he said. "That sent chills up and down my spine that the
King would make his way out there and congratulate me."
Jarrett was dominant during the week leading up to the 500,
easily winning the pole position in time trials and overpowering
the field in a 25-lap race for last year's top qualifiers.
Even when he finished second to Bill Elliott's Ford in a
125-mile qualifying race, few doubted Jarrett was still the
favorite over 500 miles. He lived up to his billing.
Jarrett led 89 of the 200 laps and passed Benson four laps from
the end, taking advantage of two late cautions.
He cruised to the victory ahead of Jeff Burton and Elliott,
driving the last two laps under the yellow flag caused by Jimmy
"I would never have dreamed when I came into this sport that I
could win this race three times," Jarrett said in Victory Lane,
where he was greeted by a burst of confetti and hugs from his crew.
Jarrett, who now has 23 career victories, was always at or near
the front in a race that lacked any drama until the last 50 laps.
The drama was Saturday. Jeff Gordon, who won Daytona from the
pole last year, banged into the rear of Jarrett's Taurus as the two
braked to avoid trouble in front of them. The bump sent Jarrett's
car skidding onto the apron, where Elliott banged off the left
Sunday, Feb. 20
Dale Jarrett ran away with the Winston Cup title last
year. Now he has a head start on everyone. A
lot of people talked for years that Jarrett wasn't
going to be a successful driver. Then he started
winning races. Last year he won the championship.
This year, in an ESPN.com poll asking who would win the championship, people picked
him sixth. Only 5.9 percent of the voters said Jarrett would repeat as champion.
The fact that fans didn't have him at least as one of the top three contenders is
something that fires up a race team. And when you are the champion, the one thing you
want to do is defend -- especially when people say you can't. I think Jarrett sent a
message in the Daytona 500: "I can defend the title."
Todd Parrott, crew chief of the Robert Yates Racing entry,
considered going to a backup car, which would have forced Jarrett
to start last in the 43-car field.
Instead, the team worked late into the night -- until NASCAR
closed the garage area -- flew in help from its shop in Charlotte,
N.C., and got back to work repairing the car when the garage opened
at about 5 a.m.
"If Todd Parrott puts it out there, I have confidence in it,"
When the race began, Jarrett fell back to fourth as he got the
feel of the car. He was back in the lead on the fifth lap.
"When we took off I wanted to make sure we had everything back
right," Jarrett said. "But, about four laps in, I knew the car
was every bit as good as it had been."
Jarrett appeared to have everything in hand even when he trailed
Mark Martin midway through the race. He still trailed when debris
on the 2½-mile oval brought out the third of six cautions and all
the leaders pitted on lap 157.
Benson was one of five drivers who chose to change only two
tires while everyone else changed four. That put Benson, the 1996
rookie of the year who has yet to win a Winston Cup race, out front
and left Jarrett fifth.
With almost everyone among the estimated 190,000 fans watching
in amazement, Benson's unheralded Pontiac was able to stay out
front as a pack of powerful Fords remained in his wake.
After former Daytona winner Derrike Cope hit the wall on lap
169, bringing out the fourth caution, Jarrett began to assert
He took advantage on lap 187 when Martin's Ford slipped up the
banked track in turn two, moving into second place right behind
Benson kept the lead until Spencer banged together with 1998
Daytona winner Dale Earnhardt on lap 193 in the middle of a big
pack. That started a six-car wreck and the race was slowed again.
When the green flag waved on lap 197, Jarrett wasted no time. He
faked high in turn two and, when Benson tried to block him, drove
under Benson's car and into the lead.
"If the green flag stays out, I would have been OK and I would
have won this," Benson said. "But it didn't. Then I've got four
Fords ganging up behind me. I knew I didn't have much chance."
Elliott, whose third-place finish was his best since a second
place at Michigan Speedway in June 1997, agreed.
"All the Fords are going to work together in that spot,"
Elliott said. "You've got five or six Fords at the top. Benson
would have won the race if the restart didn't happen."
Jarrett pulled away on the back straightaway as several of the
other top Fords followed and Benson quickly faded. He wound up
"I just came down off the banking and I had a big head of steam
and then the Jeff Burton came and helped me get by," Jarrett said.
Rusty Wallace and Martin finished behind Elliott, giving Ford a
sweep of the top five positions for the first time in 37 years. The
rout perhaps justified complaints by the General Motors teams that
the Tauruses have an aerodynamic advantage.
Bobby Labonte, sent to the back of the lead lap after teammate
Tony Stewart hit one of his tires on pit road on lap 91, wound up
sixth in the top GM entry, a Pontiac, just ahead of his brother
Terry's Chevrolet and the Grand Prix of Ward Burton.
"We were definitely at a disadvantage, but it was just one of
them days," said Earnhardt, whose Monte Carlo wound up 21st after
staying near the front most of the race. "After a run, the tires go
away and the downforce cars can beat you."
The Intimidator's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished 13th in his
first Daytona 500. As for two-time winner Gordon, he developed an
oil leak and was forced to pit. That cost him five laps and he
wound up 34th.
The 43-year-old Jarrett, who won a NASCAR record $2.2 million,
including a $1 million sponsor bonus, averaged 155.669 mph in the
race slowed by 24 laps of caution. There were only nine lead
changes among seven drivers.
|Dale Jarrett takes the checkered flag Sunday ahead of Jeff Burton in winning his third Daytona 500.|