Mike Ford couldn't believe how quickly everything had disintegrated.
When the crew chief left the No. 88 Robert Yates Racing Ford team in 1999, Dale Jarrett had just won the Cup championship.
When Ford returned -- leaving his gig with Ray Evernham after guiding Bill Elliott back to competitiveness last season -- he found the 88 team in disarray. The once powerful operation was bordering on ineptitude.
It wasn't a simple case of one team member bringing everyone else down; the team as a whole had lost its way and fallen back.
Now, Jarrett sits 18th in the points standings this season. As low as that seems for the one-time champion and long-time title contender, it's a welcome improvement from last season -- his worst on the track.
"I left here and this was a championship-caliber team," a befuddled Ford told Jarrett last week. "I didn't think it had gotten to this point."
"Unfortunately, it had," Jarrett said. "So he had a bigger job ahead of him than what he anticipated, I think. We have made gains, but we still have a ways to go, which is obvious. It seems we're (always around) that 15th spot a lot and we've got to get ourselves solidified in that top-10 area to where then we can make small changes to get ourselves situated in the top five. Then that gives you chances to win."
It's a process that Jarrett knows will take some time. But he's hoping time will be measured in a matter of races, not seasons.
"To be honest," Jarrett said, "nothing against anybody on our race team, but we're not a top-10 team right now. So we have to work in that direction to make ourselves that. Then we can hopefully find ourselves with some good finishes and gain on some guys that are in front of us."
In nine races, the 88 team has notched three top 10s. But counter-balancing those are three races where Jarrett didn't finish on the lead lap, twice finishing outside the top 30. But the team isn't dwelling on those dips. They're focused on the improvement that's already happened, especially in comparison to last year, and the promise that lies ahead.
After time off last weekend, the team is looking forward to Richmond International Raceway and Lowe's Motor Speedway. Traditionally, Jarrett's been good at both tracks. But lately, Richmond has given him trouble, finishing outside the top 30 in his last four visits. The good news, though, is that the track will be very different this time after being repaved. Jarrett's teammate, Elliott Sadler, tested at Richmond earlier this year, so Jarrett got the low-down on what the new surface feels like.
"The track is going to be totally different this time because it has just been repaved," Jarrett said. "My concern right now is that we're going to have a one-groove racetrack. I understand it's extremely fast, (but) that's not necessarily the best recipe for good racing. That's not where we put on our best shows, at the places that are the fastest. Hopefully throughout the weekend it'll get to where we've got some grooves.
"It's always been a great racetrack. You can't argue with the success that they've had there with having fantastic finishes, so we'll look forward to going there in hopes that we get two or three grooves worked in."
Jarrett is eager to get back to racing. At 18th, he's still among the drivers competing for the title because drivers outside the top 10 after 26 races are still invited if they're within 400 points -- and right now Jarrett is the last driver inside 400. But the team isn't ready to rest on that tenuous grip.
"I think we really needed the time to get caught up a little bit," Jarrett said. "I think it's good for our whole race team because they've been working extremely hard. We haven't had the success that we would have liked to have had at this point in time. We've had some decent runs, but we've also had some moments that we didn't run so good -- so I think we needed the time to evaluate everything and come here with a good game plan.
"Hopefully, we'll get through these two days and get our minds set on Richmond and we can get started off on the right foot. ... But, yeah, I'm ready to go back at it."
Jarrett said he's got an eye on the points standings at all times, but that it isn't changing his strategy much. He's still racing to get into the top five, just like he has every year. Now, he says, there is just a little more pressure.
"You're looking at it every week, certainly," he said. "You just have to go race. This part of the season hasn't really changed. You've always raced as hard as you could for 26 races to get yourself in a position to try to win the championship. Now, you still have to be good but you don't have to find yourself in that top five to feel like you have a chance. You have to get yourself in the top 10 or within 400 points, which we barely are right now, so we've got to step things up if we hope to be in that position."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.