The true testament of a man, as far as I can figure, is what folks say about him when he's still alive and not present in the conversation. Face time is often fake time. So when compliments abound with contextual proof, you know a man is special.
Based on that hypothesis, Dale Jarrett is very special.
Throughout the week of Jarrett's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I set out to learn his lasting impact on NASCAR racing and the community it envelopes. I figured what better way than to ask folks who know him personally and privately, who have experienced firsthand the weight of his words and the power of his presence.
NASCAR racing is a small community. Folks generally care for one another but don't often stop for one another. By nature, the NASCAR industry moves quickly.
Jarrett, it seems, was always willing to stop. The stories about him are rich with depth, the kind a humble man would never tell about himself. Humility is the takeaway theme from these interviews. These are but a few of the folks he touched. But they tell the tale.
Most every person with whom I spoke noted adamantly Jarrett's humble nature -- far more prevalently than any racing accolade he may have accrued. And the racing accolades he accrued, certainly, are many: Three Daytona 500 victories, two Brickyard wins and the 1999 Winston Cup championship, among them.
Twenty-four of his 32 career victories came in a six-season span, between 1996 and 2001, when he and crew chief Todd Parrott fielded one of the most dominant teams of their era.
Jarrett's career made him a Hall of Famer. His character made him indelible.
There is no finer endorsement.
Here is one particularly noteworthy tale:
When Jarrett won the championship in 1999, he wanted to fly 33 friends and family members to New York to participate in the festivities. To do so, he called Dale Earnhardt for some help. He wanted to rent Earnhardt's airplane. Remember: Jarrett was Ford's No. 1 gun. Earnhardt was Chevy's. There was an innate rivalry -- which I learned during these interviews had a wrinkle I'd never known before.
They were on-track nemeses and off-track confidants. The two drivers agreed on a rental price for the plane and up it came from the North Carolina hills to the New York lights.
Upon arrival home, Jarrett twice called Earnhardt to request he send the bill before year's end, for tax purposes. When it finally arrived at Jarrett's home -- two days before Christmas -- Jarrett opened the envelope to a note, which read simply: "FREE OF CHARGE. Congratulations to you and your wife, what a great champion. This one's on us."
"To hear DJ tell that story is damn cool and damn special," said Jarrett's close friend and former teammate, Elliott Sadler. "A lot of people don't know how cool and genuine they were off the track. They could race like hell as competitors, but when it came down to it, Dale Earnhardt gave him the plane! No charge! How amazing is that!"
Here are a few stories from people who Jarrett influenced, in their own words:
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sprint Cup Series driver
I won that race in July at Daytona, in 2001, and I had about five or six buddies with me. We had partied at this house, having a big time during the week before the race. It was my first time back to Daytona since my dad died. And it was different, but we had a really good time. So after the race we were all standing around the motor coach lot, me and all my buddies, in a big circle. It was 1 a.m. I'd done all the media and got cleaned up. We were just standing around.
Usually all the other drivers are gone by then. I was just looking around, taking stock in who was there. So I get to the guy standing beside me, and it was Dale Jarrett! And he was drinking a beer! I said, 'What're you doing here?' He said, 'Man, I wouldn't miss this for the world. What you did tonight was cool as hell.'
I've always thought a lot of him because me and [Jarrett's son] Jason ran around the track together and hung out, when we were younger and when we got to go with our dads. And I followed Jason's career when he started racing. I'd always talk to Dale about Jason. And then, when Dale would hang out with Elliott Sadler he was always real easygoing, and so fun to be around.
But that night at Daytona really blew me away. That says a lot about the kind of person he is. And ever since then he talks to me with so much respect and attention. Even in passing, even, 'Hello, how ya doing?' he has genuine care on his face and in his eyes when he's talking to me.
It's rare when you meet somebody who's interested in you and what you're doing. That's a true friend, with a genuine concern about what life's like for you. I don't know that I could count that many people on my two hands in my life that are like that.
When those races are over we haul ass. It had been two hours since the race was over, and there he was in his shorts and his T-shirt. I think I said, 'I can't believe you're still here.' And he said, 'Man, I wouldn't miss this for the world. I can't believe you freaking won. I was sitting back there watching, pulling for you, man.' He said he was sitting in his car watching it happen and really excited that I pulled it off. He was just as thrilled, genuinely, for it as someone in my own family. I thought the night couldn't get any better, but to have a guy you look up to, and a peer you look up to, give you that kind of respect ...
My dad wasn't there to tell me good job. And in a way, it was like [Jarrett] was supposed to be there. He kind of filled a bit of that role. To give me that fatherly 'good-job' pat on the back that my dad would've given me. I took it as, he was proud of me from a father sort of sense. Filling that role at that time. That probably was the furthest thing from his mind, but it seemed to me he was supposed to be there for that reason.
Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president of motorsports production
I have two really good stories about DJ. Before I get into those, though, one thing I always found fascinating about him when I met him and started doing television with him, is instantly what a natural he was as a broadcaster. I don't know if that's because of his personality, which is so ingratiating and infectious and polite and gentlemanlike, or whether it's the upbringing by his dad, I don't know. But from the day he put on a headset he was an absolute natural, at the actual science of a broadcaster analyzing what's on the screen and offering viewers insight.
Now, great stories: I went to the banquet each year, and I'd take out all our announcers. And in those days Ned [Jarrett, Dale's father and NASCAR Hall of Famer] was working with us. Ned and Benny Parsons and Bob Jenkins. And we went to the famous Sparks Steak House for our yearly team dinner. We're on the way to the table, and the room recognizes the group, and they gave Ned the honor of a standing ovation for Dale's accomplishment in winning the 1999 championship.
I always knew that we -- and I, personally -- were privileged to have a relationship with Ned and Dale. But to see everything you know about these people come to life spontaneously was like a retro flash mob. It was an amazing thing to witness.
One other thing that struck me happened that same year, at the 1999 Winston Cup banquet. In the old days you'd spend the night dancing and partying, and everybody that was still standing would go up to the Budweiser suite in the Waldorf for the champion's party.
All the elevators would get really crowded and jammed up, so I remember walking up from the eighth floor all the way to the top of the tower with DJ to continue the celebration. I thought that was so cool. Here's the Winston Cup champion, and he's got to walk up 30 or 40 floors to get to his own party! That just goes back to what a humble man he is.
Tony Stewart, three-time Sprint Cup Series champion
He's had a huge impact on me. His family has made a huge impact on the sport and he's continued that legacy. My first year in the sport is when he won the championship in 1999. And I remember being at the champion's party afterwards, and this was a guy celebrating his first championship, and spent a lot of time with me. A lot of time. And all I had done was win Rookie of the Year.
That was huge to me, but in relationship and in perspective to what he had done in winning the championship, it wasn't anything. And the respect he showed me -- he spent a lot of time with me and I got to hang around a lot that evening at that party. He made a huge impact on me right off the bat. And we've always been great friends since then. There's a lot of great stories I wish I could tell that I can't [laughing]. I'm proud; it's the first time I've had a close friend that's made the Hall of Fame. It's exciting for me.
Mike Helton, NASCAR president
My thoughts on Dale come from several different directions. He's part of our legacy because he was a second-generation driver. His father was a well-documented and very successful part of building our sport, and [Dale] followed in those footsteps. In addition to that, his brother, his sister, the whole family has been engaged in some form or business in this sport ever since Ned grew them up at the racetrack.
Dale is a very strong extension of that legacy. On top of that, he was a very successful driver. He helped build a good program for Joe Gibbs. He ran for the Wood Brothers and was successful there and certainly at Robert Yates. He's attached to so many deeply rooted parts of NASCAR, by the relationships he had. And above that, he's a very professional spokesperson for our sport, both when he was a driver and today in his broadcast role. Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint one place that says this is Dale Jarrett. His name brings a wave of different reasons why he is Dale Jarrett.
My favorite times with him go way back to when he was running international sedans. He was leaving some of the short-track stuff and trying to break into racing. I was running Atlanta Raceway, and we were running those cars there. That's the first time I met Dale. He's just so charismatic. He's a little younger than I am, not a whole lot. He'll tell you he's a lot younger [laughing]. He and I struck it off back then, and I've had a great deal of admiration of his style and character ever since.
Edsel B. Ford II, member, board of directors, Ford Motor Company
Like his father, Ned, we have always considered Dale a "Ford Man." He achieved many great accomplishments for us, both on and off the track, including exciting wins in the Daytona 500 and the 1999 NASCAR championship. We congratulate Dale for being elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Jeff Burton, Sprint Cup Series driver, NBC Sports NASCAR analyst
It didn't come easy for Dale. People don't realize how hard he had to struggle. When he first drove that Robert Yates car, there was conversation that he couldn't drive a loose race car. He didn't have an easy ride. He had to work his way there. He kept plugging away and, luckily, ended up in a good car. But the majority of his career he wasn't in a good car, and he worked so hard to get through that.
I always thought that was so cool about him -- he found a way. That was always so cool to me. To me that's what's cool about the success he had. He's one of the most underrated drivers we've ever had. Look at his race wins, and understand what he drove for a good portion of his career, and you'll see he did damn good.
He and I didn't always see eye-to-eye. We'd been in some situations on the track, and I felt like it was his fault and he felt it was mine. And then there were company disagreements when the [Ford] Taurus first came out. A lot of tension. And [Robert Yates Racing] wanted changes and we [at Roush Racing] were happy with where we were. It was testy there for a while. But he and I were doing a photo shoot for somebody and he walked right up to me and said, 'Hey, I know we haven't always seen eye-to-eye and haven't gotten along too great, but I want to. We need to.'
I thought that was cool as hell. That was one of the first times I was dealing with somebody above me in the sport, and he was more mature and smarter than me. That meant something to me. It still does.
Andy Petree, ESPN NASCAR analyst, former Sprint Cup champion crew chief
I've got a ton of respect for Dale Jarrett. One thing most people don't know is how much he learned about the race car. When we started out we were broke, brother. No money. None. He had an interest in learning the car, because he knew it would determine his success or failure. Just showing up and driving the car wouldn't be how he would succeed, and he knew it.
When he came in he was a three-sport athlete in high school. His dad was a champion, but he didn't know a thing about a race car. He didn't know a spark plug from a lug nut. He learned how to build every piece of that car from bottom-up by the time he got to the Cup Series. People think because his dad was Ned Jarrett he had an easy route. It was not like that at all. I was there for most of it, so I can tell you firsthand it was tough for him. There was nothing that was going to keep him from being successful. I've never seen anyone more determined and focused on being successful at the highest level.
Success didn't come right away. He had to work at it. He got better as a driver every year he drove. A lot of drivers focus on making their situations better. Dale concentrated on making himself better -- physically, mentally, everything. And he did that. I am so proud to have been part of that. And now he's in the Hall of Fame. What a story and what a person.
Kasey Kahne, Sprint Cup Series driver
When I went with Yates, the very first year of my stock car career, we were in a completely different building, a couple shops up the road in this little building. We did it all ourselves. It wasn't really connected with the Cup team at all. But there were times when Dale Jarrett would actually talk to me. And he's the only one who did.
I remember at California, it was my first race ever on a big track like that, and he tried to explain to me the side draft, how you draft up behind a car and then side-draft them and pull away and take that air and use it to your advantage. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.
And after the race he came down and was like, 'Man! You were doing it!' And we talked about it. That was one of my first times meeting Dale, and definitely the first time he helped me. To this day, I still do some of those same things, so it was great advice he gave me.
Jed Drake, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer, production
Dale has elevated our presentation immensely since he joined us, following in the legacy of his dad. He has the same genuine quality that his father had, that he brings to the booth. Genuine translates easily into believable, so any time he says anything, you know it's from the heart. It's the truth from his perspective and for our fans and our viewers that means a great deal. He's incredibly insightful. Any number of times you feel he could be driving the car as he's talking, like you're in the car with him, which is a great quality. And he's such a gentleman, and carries himself with that moniker and does it beautifully. He's sort of a beacon for our team, as someone we all look up to.
I remember when he was still driving, at Daytona, and we wanted to sign him up. So it was arranged that I would go see him in his bus. He was in his racing suit, and he said, 'Yeah, come on in.' I've been through more talent negotiations than I can count, and most of them are with very high-strung agents, which is what made this particular discussion so unique. We sat down at a table, just him and me, no one else. I told him we wanted him, and here is what we can pay you. He said, 'Is this a good, fair salary, compared to everybody else?' I said, 'Absolutely.' He paused, gave me a look, and said, 'OK, sounds good.' That was the full extent of our negotiation, right there. With someone of his stature, you can go months with an agent and it becomes so divisive and so difficult. But not with him. That was it.
Doug Yates, Robert Yates Racing/Ford Motor Company head engine builder
The thing I noticed about DJ from day one: He is a man of his word. My dad [team owner Robert Yates] was the one who wanted him to drive our car. Ford said, 'We gotta beat that Goodwrench [Chevrolet] car.' They wanted to go get Dale Earnhardt. My dad and Earnhardt were buddies, but at the end of day he was getting a raise and he wasn't leaving.
My dad said, 'We can beat that car and we got just the guy -- a guy named Dale Jarrett.' We all said, 'Wait, you think Dale Jarrett can beat Dale Earnhardt?' He said, 'Yep.' So we signed him up, and that's when it really started taking off, when they put [crew chief] Todd Parrott and DJ together. From 1996 to 2000, the worst we finished in points was fourth. It was an incredible run.
Back to him being a man of his word for a second: He was driving for [Joe Gibbs Racing], and he told my dad he was coming to our team. Then he won Charlotte in October, and we all went, 'Oh, no.' He called my dad the next day and said he was still coming. Man of his word. What stuck out to me the most, being a little younger, were his leadership qualities. All the great teams I've been a part of, the driver is the leader, the quarterback, the guy who sets the pace of how hard guys work for you. He did that.
He set the bar for that team and we all rose to the occasion to make him proud. That was a great feeling. The other thing he did was, man, the big races. He was the Big Race Guy. When we went to the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, we knew we could get it done. That guy is loved. The guys that are loved are the most successful. He made everybody on the team feel like they were important, and that he was no better than any of them. That's the kind of guy he was.
Elliott Sadler, NASCAR Nationwide Series driver, Jarrett's former Sprint Cup teammate
I have an amazing story about Dale Jarrett. It was 1996 at Darlington Raceway. Diamond Ridge just gave me an opportunity to test to see how I could do. I'm 21 years old. Darlington is a track that scares you to death the first time you go there. You run up against the wall. It's scary.
I pull into the track and I see Robert Yates Racing there with a bunch of 88 and 28 cars. Back then there were no testing rules. DJ was there testing for the Winston Million. If he won Darlington, he'd win the Winston Million. I finally get up the nerve to walk over to DJ, whom I'd never met, and said, 'Hi, my name is Elliott Sadler. I've never been here before. Can you tell me anything about this track that might help me?'
He said, 'I'll do ya one better. Get in the car.' He's took me around the track in his car -- here he is trying to test for the Winston Million and he's helping this kid he's never met before. He's showing me the track, where to run and general analysis. Then, instead of hanging out with his guys, he came back at lunchtime to check on me again.
I'm like, 'Wow! He doesn't know me from Adam! Isn't it awesome how nice these big time NASCAR drivers are!' I realized later it's not like that at all. That told me how special Dale Jarrett was. That was my first-ever interaction with him as a person, and shows you no matter who you are, where you are, he makes time for you and is very genuine about it. That left a great impression on me.
He was integral in me getting in the No. 21 Cup car, and he had everything to do with me getting the No. 38 car and being his teammate [at Yates]. Our driving styles were similar and the way we treated people was similar, so we got along so well.
We had two rules as teammates, and these are Dale Jarrett rules, not Elliott Sadler rules: No. 1, we don't lie to each other. No matter what. At that time in the sport, engineers didn't want to tell all the tricks of the trade. That's just how it was. Heck, how it is now sometimes. We had a rule, no matter what, we're going to tell the truth and be 100 percent upfront, and then there'll never be an issue.
Rule No. 2, especially at Daytona and Talladega: Do not ever hurt yourself to help me. No matter what, we'll understand -- you will and I will -- that there are racing circumstances that determine that. If we have this understanding before the race even starts, we'll have no issues.
I could sit here and talk to you for five hours on all the little things and stories I've learned from Dale Jarrett, but the biggest things I've learned was how to treat fans and sponsors. He is so first class with all of them. He is the ultimate gentleman. Business stuff, too. I felt like if I had an issue, I can call him at any time. I can ask him anything. He is that kind of friend that went above and beyond to make sure you are OK.
Brad Daugherty, ESPN NASCAR analyst/former NBA All-Star
I've always considered myself to be like a lot like DJ. Dale came from a real hardworking background, and he wasn't a great race car driver to start with, just like I wasn't a great basketball player. I had to work harder than everyone else and so did he. And he went on to win championships and all those races, and I've always admired that about him.
He was always the epitome of a champion -- not someone it was given to or who stumbled into it. He worked his butt off. And it was harder for him, too, because of the expectations people had from his dad. He studied. He practiced. He made himself better. I'm a huge fan. Him wining the [Daytona] 500 with his dad calling the race, that's one of the memories ingrained into my mind when I think about this sport and why I love it.
You won't meet a finer, more humble person than Dale. Of all the drivers I've been around, he's the most humble. He's just an old mountain boy. I love me some Dale Jarrett.
Kevin Harvick, Sprint Cup Series driver
I got into some trouble in 2002, and two people called me: One was Dale Jarrett and the other was Rusty Wallace. And those guys were like, 'Look, we've been there. If you need anything, need any help, we're here.' And more than that, after everything happened with Dale [Earnhardt] in 2001, he was the first guy over to say, 'Hey man, if you need anything at all, I'm here to help you.'
For me, I had no clue what I was even stepping into. This happened at Rockingham standing outside the trailer. So he was one of the veteran guys that reached out, and that's how he is to most everybody. He's a person that's willing to help you, and never had the ego as if he wanted to hold everything to himself. He's a great guy and a great person, and a great ambassador for our sport.
Rick Hendrick, 11-time Sprint Cup champion owner
I look at Dale as one of the gentlemen of the sport, that won races, big races, but always was a guy that was first class. He's just a great guy. He's been a great role model for young people, and he is deserving. He's won for a lot of different owners and brands. When you look at who has been a great role model, a champion, and won, Dale Jarrett is one of those guys.
Jeff Gordon, Sprint Cup Series driver, four-time NASCAR champion
First of all, he is a first-class individual, on and off the racetrack. He was just a class act to drive with. He wasn't always that guy that went out and won a ton of races, but you always knew he was going to be consistent and a real factor. He showed that at Gibbs and he showed that at Yates. Battling against him for some championships was tough, and I knew it was only a matter of time for him to win one with all the great battles we had. I've always been a huge Dale Jarrett fan. Racing against him in my first Daytona 500 and watching the moves he made to win that race was very cool. He's a first-class guy, the way he handles himself and the talent he has.