If Dale Jarrett finds his way to the winner’s circle this Father’s Day, the man to whom he owes the most won’t be there to join the celebration.
Father Ned is home in North Carolina, where he and much of the Jarrett clan will watch the UAW-GM Teamwork 500 on TV during a family reunion. But the most important gift his son could give him has already been delivered.
Dale Jarrett has become a major star on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, validating his father’s faith through far tougher times.
A decade ago, a number of rides opened in NASCAR’s elite Winston Cup division. As a force on the Busch Grand National tour, Dale appeared a shoo-in for one of them.
But it wasn’t that easy. The line was that he had considerable talent, but not enough drive to win.
That bothered Ned, a TV racing analyst and former two-time Winston Cup champion whose 50 career wins probably will not be approached by his more celebrated son. “I knew how badly he wanted it, and I knew that he could do it,” Ned said.
A mainstay in racing long after his retirement, Ned was in a position to help Dale. He encouraged him but didn’t lobby, even when Dale lost his ride in Cale Yarborough’s car after the 1989 season.
When asked, however, Ned would tell the media that this was a driver who would win. The only team he spoke to was the Wood Brothers, who put Dale in their car after the late Neil Bonnett was injured in ‘90.
“He was a great athlete, and because of that, I thought he would be a better driver than I was,” Ned said of Dale, a four-sport prep star. “I thought, with the right opportunity, he could get the job done.”
History was to bear him out, but it took some time. Finally, in his 129th career start, in his fifth Winston Cup season, Dale became a winner. Two years later, in ‘93, he won the Daytona 500 - practically the only major prize to elude his father.
Still, the talk persisted. He should win more, the critics said.
After stints with the Wood Brothers and Joe Gibbs, Dale Jarrett reached another pivotal point in his career as the ‘95 season approached. If anything appeared to be a no-win proposition, it was the open seat in the Robert Yates Racing Ford Thunderbird. This was the ride being held for the recovering Ernie Irvan, the hottest driver on the circuit until he nearly died in a ‘94 crash.
“If I was looking for praise, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Jarrett said of his decision to be a stand-in for Irvan. “If I went out and won 10 races, it was because I had a great car. If I didn’t, it was because I couldn’t drive.”
That perception dogged him when things didn’t go well for much of last season. But Yates didn’t care for that talk, exonerating Jarrett.
“We haven’t put a car back on the trailer that was running right,” Yates said after Jarrett finally won for him, in his 17th start, last July 16.
Jarrett said at the time that he was looking to put together his own team. But Yates had other ideas, and asked Jarrett to stay on. The popular theory was that he would be driving Yates’ “second car.”
But Jarrett silenced that talk immediately. He opened the ‘96 season by driving a supposedly inferior car serviced by a new team and a rookie crew chief to his second victory in the Daytona 500.
“Make it perfectly clear that it wasn’t the driver that won this race today,” he said.
That kind of humility he learned from his father, “the only person I’ve ever really regarded as a true hero.
“Dad taught me about the value of hard work and learning your job from the ground up,” Jarrett said. “And I always knew he was there, that he would care.”
Call it quality care, the kind Ned Jarrett was to demonstrate long before Dale’s sponsor capitalized the QC and displayed it prominently on the hood of his car.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Injured Jarrett to drive Driver Dale Jarrett plans to “play hurt” today, and that has produced added drama to the UAW-GM Teamwork 500 at Pocono Raceway. The race is the 13th of this season’s 31 NASCAR Winston Cup Series races. Jarrett suffered a broken left rib and a fracture of the tibia just below the right knee Friday when his Ford slipped in Turn 3 and slammed driver’s side first into the outer wall as he was about to begin his qualifying lap.