BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Dale Jarrett hadn't given his retirement from the Sprint Cup Series much thought since October, when he announced his plans at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. There always was two months remaining. Then one month. Then three weeks.
The end always seemed far away.
Then the 1999 Cup champion drove into Bristol Motor Speedway, where on Sunday he'll drive in a points event for the final time. Memories of the past 20 years flooded his mind, and all of a sudden, reality set in.
"This week has been a lot more different than what I've thought all season," Jarrett said. "It's been fun thinking about it, but kind of difficult now that it's coming to an end."
Jarrett won't go out on top like John Elway after winning the Super Bowl or Michael Jordan the first and second time he stepped away from the NBA after winning the title.
He's 32nd in points, 350 behind leader Kyle Busch after only four events. He hasn't won since Talladega in 2005, a string of 83 consecutive events. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in points since 2002, when his ninth-place showing ended a string of seven years among the sport's elite.
He was 41st a year ago, making only 24 of 36 races after jumping from Robert Yates Racing to Michael Waltrip Racing.
He gets more positive feedback on his golf game -- which is among the best if not the best in the garage -- and his future in the broadcast booth for ESPN than on his driving.
Yet few in the garage are more respected than the 51-year-old from Hickory, N.C., known simply as DJ among his peers and fans. He has driven for Cale Yarborough, Wood Brothers Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and RYR. Among his 32 career wins, three were the Daytona 500.
"Dale is one of the underappreciated drivers in this sport, honestly, if you look at the number of wins he had, championships, poles," Jeff Burton said. "When somebody says who's the best 20 drivers, you never hear his name, and I don't think that's fair."
Jarrett's career took longer than those of most drivers of his stature to get off the ground. He didn't win a race until his fifth full season. He had only four wins through his first nine seasons, albeit one was the 1993 Daytona 500 for upstart Joe Gibbs Racing.
His career didn't take off until 1996, when he won four races at RYR. He won 24 times between then and 2001, when he went to Victory Lane three of the first eight races to build a 123-point lead over Jeff Gordon in the championship standings.
"He is just one of the highest quality individuals and drivers that I have ever raced against," Gordon said. "It is really odd to me when guys you have been racing with say they are retiring and are not going to be out there on the track with you anymore. It definitely makes you think about where you are at in your career and those that you had racing with them."
Like Mark Martin, who is winding down his career with a part-time schedule, Jarrett is considered one of the gentlemen of the sport.
"DJ is probably one of the most respected drivers out there for competitiveness and courtesy," Greg Biffle said. "When you see him coming in the mirror and he's faster than you, you just get out of the way and let him go, and he does the same for you."
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart agreed.
"He was one of those guys that would race you hard when it was time to race hard and when it was early in the race and it didn't mean much, then he knew to be patient," he said. "He raced you the way you raced him. If you learned to be patient and race him with respect, he would do the same.
"I'm sad as a driver to see him go. We're going to miss having him down in the garage every week."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the motor coach lot at Daytona International Speedway, having just won the 2001 July race only a few months after his father was killed on the same track.
I don't think you can celebrate enough something like Dale Jarrett's last race, as much as he has meant to this sport.
-- Kevin Harvick
He was having a beer with about 20 of his friends when he turned to his
right and saw Jarrett.
"I asked him what he was still doing there, why aren't you on your way home," Earnhardt said. "He said, 'I wouldn't miss this. That was the coolest thing I have ever seen you do.'
"It showed me a lot about his character right there. At that time in my life, it meant a lot to me for somebody to care and want to experience that with you. Obviously, there was a void there for me, and it meant a lot to me that he understood that and that was just a great moment for me."
Most in the garage have their favorite Jarrett moment. Ryan Newman's happened at Bristol.
"He spun me out on purpose," the reigning Daytona 500 champion said with a laugh.
Newman's first memory of Jarrett actually was after the qualifying race before his first Daytona 500.
"He came up to me after the race and told me that I did a good job," he said. "We finished [seventh], but it meant something for me to have somebody that was the champion in 1999."
Kurt Busch first met Jarrett at a season-ending banquet in Homestead, Fla., after winning the Southwest Tour championship.
"I got to shake his hand," Busch recalled. "That was one of the coolest moments. I got to meet a NASCAR champion. That was the first champion I ever met."
A year later, Busch found himself just ahead of Jarrett at Dover in his first-ever Cup start.
"I just pulled out of the way as quickly as I could because those guys wanted to go a lot quicker than I did at the start of the race," said Busch, who started 10th.
Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson experienced a similar moment during his first start, in 2001 at Charlotte.
"I came out of the pits, and I think Mark Martin was in front of me and [Jarrett] was behind me, and I couldn't believe I was there at that moment," he said.
One of Johnson's first memories of Cup racing was watching Jarrett win the 1993 Daytona 500 with his dad, Ned Jarrett, commentating from the television booth.
"I didn't catch him at the peak of his career and race with him," Johnson said of Jarrett. "It's just the way he commanded respect from people and the way he respects people. And that's in the car and out of the car. He's a great guy.
"But there is a line, and damn it, you don't cross the line with Dale Jarrett. You just don't do certain things."
Kevin Harvick will always remember finishing just ahead of Jarrett two months ago in Jarrett's final Daytona 500.
"I told him that no matter what happens in my career, I can always say that Dale Jarrett pushed me to a 14th-place finish in the Daytona 500," he said with a laugh. "I don't think you can celebrate enough something like Dale Jarrett's last race, as much as he has meant to this sport."
Just down the highway that runs in front of Bristol Motor Speedway is the corporate headquarters of a company that owns Pet Dairy.
In 1983, Jarrett signed with Pet Dairy as an $80,000 sponsor for his first full Busch Series season.
"I remember coming over to their place and spent a day talking to the employees, signing autographs and taking pictures," Jarrett said. "It was things like that that made the difference in whether I was going to be a race driver."
At the time, Jarrett thought he would win often at the half-mile track nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He won once, the August race of 1997, when he held off Martin.
"But that was a very memorable night," Jarrett said.
Such memories will weigh heavy on Jarrett's mind as he takes the green flag Sunday. He'll remember how Eric Freedlander gave him the opportunity to drive fulltime in Cup in 1987, how that turned into a ride for Yarborough, then to the Wood Brothers.
"That really set my career forward," Jarrett said of landing with the Wood Brothers. "There were a lot of days that I had no idea this kind of success that I've been fortunate enough to have would come along."
There were times when Jarrett didn't know whether he'd be racing at all.
"It was definitely hit-and-miss early on," he said. "It was a struggle. This week, I've thought a lot about the times when I had my own Busch [Series] team trying to make ends meet having two other people working with me full time.
"We were working literally day and night. It wasn't uncommon for it to be 18-hour days. That is what it took. Not only that, I would drive the hauler to the track. I say hauler, but it was really a pickup truck with a trailer behind it."
It wasn't until 1997, when he won seven races and finished second in points to Gordon, that Jarrett felt as though he'd arrived.
"I said, 'There's no doubt that I belong here and I can do this,'" he recalled. "I knew all along that I could do it, but I was finally in the situation that made all of that real.
"I had great sponsorship. We had a great deal going with Ford Motor Company, and it was just a blast then. I said, 'Now you can relax and have fun at this, like you're supposed to.'"
Now Jarrett will have fun playing golf and sharing his expertise with a television audience in the Nationwide and Cup series. His only other plan to be behind the wheel is at the May 17 All-Star race in Charlotte.
Then he'll say goodbye for good.
"I think the emotions Sunday are going to be much greater," said Jarrett, who made it into the Bristol field with his past champion's provisional after qualifying was rained out.
"Even though I know that after the All-Star race that I won't get back in a race car again, this is really the competition side of me and the competitor inside of me knows that this is the last time I'll compete with a lot on the line."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.