Jarrett fan's odyssey on its final leg in Bristol

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For college basketball fans the Road to the Final Four is in full buzzer-beating swing.

But for one NASCAR fanatic, the road to the final five is speeding to a close.

Last fall when Dale Jarrett announced his plan to retire from Sprint Cup Series competition after the first five races of the 2008 season, Cathy Tanner decided she had to see her man wheel it one last time.

Or five.

Tanner, a fan of Jarrett's for more than a decade, took a seven-week leave of absence in February from her position as an elementary school teacher's aid and hit the road.

From her Florence, Ala., home to Daytona Beach, Fla., to Fontana, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., to Hampton, Ga., to Bristol, Tenn. Just her and her gray tabby cat, Baby, in a 27-foot RV. She'll head back to Florence following Sunday's Food City 500.

"The next time somebody tells us they're a DJ fan we'll have to call BS on them," laughed Jarrett's son, Jason. "We know who the biggest one is now."

"It's just something I wanted to do -- to see (Jarrett) race these final races," said Tanner, via phone from a perch in the Bristol Motor Speedway grandstand, Cup cars blaring by in the background. "And I didn't want to go by myself so I had to bring my cat with me."

She returns to school Friday.

Tanner was introduced to NASCAR years ago when her daughter chose the sport as the topic for a high school term paper. They'd go to the library together and read about the sport, and watch races with Cathy's father on Sunday afternoons.

She cheered for Jarrett and Terry Labonte, but Jarrett ultimately won her devotion.

"I went with Dale because we have the same birthday," Tanner said. "I always thought that was sort of strange."

Fate, too, can be strange. In 2001 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tanner said she and her husband were in the Cup garage and happened upon Jarrett's son, Jason. Jason signed an autograph for Tanner and went on his way. She thought no more of it. But at Las Vegas a couple weeks back, Tanner was heading down an escalator at the track just as Jason was heading up one, right beside her.

"I screamed his name – 'Jason!' " she said, laughing. "And he's standing there wondering who the hell that crazy woman is screaming his name."

"I barely got a glimpse at her, but I threw my hand up," Jason said.

That was it. For the moment.

En route from Atlanta to Bristol, Tanner stopped in at Dale Jarrett Inc., to purchase some souvenirs. Jason happened to be there -- taking out the trash and straightening up the retail store, no less. Jason didn't recognize Tanner until she introduced herself as the screamer, at which time Jason mentioned having thought he'd seen her at Atlanta the previous week, as well.

"It was her, and then she tells me the story -- taking the leave from work and all," Jason said. "Even in the store and all she never said, 'Hey can I meet your dad?' She never asked for one thing."

Tanner is uncertain how much she's spent on the trek, or how many miles she's driven (MapQuest says 6,065). She fills the RV up twice a day on the road, and shelled out a ridiculous $123 for an oil change in a remote Texas town.

"And to think I pay $31 at home," she said with a laugh. "I think I had 'sucker' written across my forehead."

She used a portion of her inheritance from her father's death to pay for the trip. NASCAR Sundays afforded father and daughter a special bond, so she felt he'd approve.

"He'd want me to do that," she said. "He wouldn't question how I've spent the money."

Tanner says she's a walking advertisement for NASCAR addiction.

"Tickets $95. Food $15. Standing in front of the garage at Las Vegas, priceless," she said.

Tanner stood outside the Sprint Cup garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for two and a half hours on Saturday, and two and a half more on Sunday. She never got to meet DJ.

"He just never came by," she said.

"She never asked," Jason said. "I just don't get the feeling she was doing it for any publicity. She's a math and English teacher, and she almost acted like not too many -- maybe only her closest teacher friends -- knew why she took the leave."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.