Sitting 10th in points heading into Martinsville Speedway, Dale Jarrett knows things could be much worse for his Robert Yates Racing team.
The bright side is that he knows they can be a whole lot better, too. While there were times the past few years where the veteran was discouraged, he's focusing on the bright side at this point in time.
"We feel like we've made some gains because we know that the competition has stepped up," Jarrett said. "It's incredible what's out there right now and I know you hear this from everybody, especially the guys that are trying to make their way into that top 10 about how tough it is, but you get around looking at time sheets from practice and things and you realize just how difficult it is. There are literally 22-25 teams every week that you say, 'Those are good cars.' And you're gonna have to be on your game to outrun those."
Consistency has been Jarrett's hallmark thus far, as he's got a pair of top-10 finishes and hasn't finished worse than last week's 20th-place showing at Bristol. He's completed every lap thus far, though has yet to lead a circuit.
And at this point, he's not about to take any unnecessary risks just to try leading a lap or two. He knows the risk simply isn't worth the reward this early.
"... They struggled up until June, really," he said. "They were working on what was gonna make them good the latter half of the season and I think that's what we're saying. We realize that we could take the big gambles at some of these race tracks and really try to go where we think people are that are beating us, but in taking that chance if you don't have all the pieces there, you take that chance of finishing 35th versus what we're doing right now. We feel like we can finish somewhere between that 12th to 20th, so we'll just use 15th and know that we can go do that.
"From 15th to 35th is basically 60 points and we're not capable of saying if we take that chance and we lose, OK, next week at Martinsville we'll go make that up because we know we can go there and win. So we can't take that big a chance right now. We're having to make some small steps, but we're pretty happy."
Jarrett hopes to remain happy through at least 2008, which, at this point, is shaping up as the last year of his career. At 49, he feels he's got a few more seasons left, whether they are with Robert Yates Racing or another organization.
"Right now I've pretty much made up my mind that I'm gonna run through 2008," Jarrett said recently. "Hopefully it's gonna be where I'm at. That hasn't been totally decided yet, but we're working on that and there have been other conversations, so I have to explore all of the options. But when that's up, my gig is pretty much done. I'm gonna be to where I need to move on and let somebody else get in."
The one certainty is that he simply won't fade from view come 2009. While he's not sure just what he'll be doing, Jarrett plans to remain in the thick of things.
"As far as staying with a team, whoever that team may be at that time when I'm finished -- helping them to bring on somebody as my replacement, helping in that respect, working with some sponsors, yeah, I want to stay around the sport ... and that may be more appealing to me even than if I get any type of TV work or something like that," he said. "I like working with some of the young guys. You don't have to go tell them how to drive. They obviously know how to do that or they wouldn't be there, but give them a little insight there.
"There's a lot more to this sport now, especially with these young guys, because they're getting opportunities and things at such a young age that there's a lot more involved. It's not [like] talking about the NBA school that the rookies have to go to and learn how to walk and act and do everything else, but a little bit of guidance wouldn't hurt. Yeah, I think I would like that role if I get that opportunity. Now who that is with, I don't know. We'll see."
One driver who knows how valuable a mentor Jarrett can be is Dale Earnhardt Jr. After his father was killed in 2001, Earnhardt Jr. eventually realized he could turn to the 1999 Cup champion for advice when needed.
"When I won the race at Daytona in 2001 in July, I was standing in the bus lot and there were a bunch of people standing around talking," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Me and Michael Waltrip were talking about the race and how cool that was and how it hadn't sunk in. It was just friends of mine and Michael's camp and I looked to my right and Dale Jarrett was standing there right next to me sitting there with a cool beer listening to everything we were saying. I was like, 'What are you doing here?' and he goes, 'Man, I wouldn't miss this for the world.' He said, 'That was the neatest thing I ever saw.'
"We hadn't really talked much before that that I can recall. We just spent a lot of time over the next couple of months talking to me about my dad, what he thought about me, what I was doing, what I could be doing better, what he appreciated about me, those type of things. We just got to have a great friendship. Every time I see him, it's sort of the same I used to do with my dad. When I see him I start running through my head everything I got going on. Is there anything to ask him or anything I need help with real quick while he's here. I like to talk to Bobby Labonte a lot because he has a real square head on his shoulders. He has his priorities in order in my opinion. He's a good guy to get information like that from if it's personal or business or whatever is going on in your life. Jarrett has always been genuine and always cared about helping me make the right decision."
One of these days, Jarrett will decide how the final years of his career will play out. For now, he's just worried about getting better each week out and staying in the top 10 in points.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com