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RR's Uneducated, Rambling Thoughts About Automobile Racing writes:
"Dale Jarrett's 1996: A Breakthrough"
Posted by RR on November 24, 2009
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First, I?ll be away from the computer for a few days, so it?ll be a few days before I finish my Driver of the Decade: IndyCar list. I?m sure that?s a bummer for many of you (and yes, that was sarcasm). Today, I shall write about a topic that has been in my head for the past few days, and was based off of another blog from this very website.

About a week ago, fellow blogger Joey2448 wrote a piece detailing Jeff Gordon?s narrow loss in the 1996 Winston Cup to his teammate Terry Labonte. While most of his column was obviously spent on the Hendrick teammates, he did briefly mention another driver: Dale Jarrett.

I began to think about ?DJ?, and his career up to that point. As many of you know, DJ had a long, winding road to the top. He drove in the Busch Grand National series (and its predecessor, the Sportsman Series), for most of the 1980s. His first crack at the Cup circuit came in 1987, driving for Eric Freelander (who?). A year later, he split time driving for both Cale Yarborough and Hoss Ellington before going full time with Yarborough one year later. During these three years, good results were scarce for Gentlemen Ned?s son. A pair of fifth place race finishes was all he could muster, and he could climb no higher than 23rd in the final point standings.

After Neil Bonnett?s injury at the 1990 Transouth Financial 500, Jarrett was hired by the famed Wood Brothers to take the wheel of the #21 Citgo Ford Thunderbird. While he did manage to collect his first career victory in a thrilling duel with Davey Allison at Michigan, good runs were beyond reach for the most part, as he collected only four top five finishes in almost two seasons for the Wood Bros.

For 1992, Jarrett took a huge step, and joined Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs? new NASCAR team, with sponsorship from Interstate Batteries. The 199 season would be by far his biggest season yet. After scoring only eight top fives in his entire career up to the point, Jarrett finished in the top five 13 times in 1993. His average finish was over five spots higher than his previous best. He finished 5th in the final standings, by far his best result. And, perhaps most importantly, he won the 1993 Daytona 500, holding off Dale Earnhardt in the final laps.

The magic of 1993 would soon leave him. He struggled through 1994, with the low point being a DNQ at North Wilkesboro. He would experience déjà vu in 1995, as he once again filled in for an injured driver. This time, he would climb into a championship caliber car, the Robert Yates #28 Havoline Ford. In 1994, Ernie Irvan dueled with Dale Earnhardt for the championship until a practice crash nearly killed him. In 1995, Dale Jarrett would struggle immensely in the first part of the year, and would finish thirteenth in the points.

So, why am I going through his career? Because I think it is paramount that we go through his entire career up to 1996, to better explain the situation. The fact of the matter is, DJ was, at many times, mediocre. After he left the Wood Brothers, Morgan Shepherd took the Woods to a win and two top 10 points results. While Jarrett won once in 1995, his replacement at JGR had won three times and finished three spots ahead of him in arguably an inferior car.

If any of you are bored, or have no life (or both, like me), go through the rasn group archives on Google. Search Dale Jarrett in Groups around 1995. You?ll see that he was one of the most criticized drivers during that period. You could almost hear the groans as users complained about Jarrett getting prime rides in 1995 and 1996 respectively. For many, Jarrett simply wasn?t good enough for Robert Yates Racing, and was destined to be a perennial ?also-ran?.

The fact of the matter is, it was 'do or die time' for Jarrett. I know that phrase is cliché, but it was certainly the case. 1996 was a 'make or break? (another cliché, I know) season. If Jarrett didn?t get it done, chances are he wouldn?t get another shot at the big time. RYR formed a second team and put Jarrett in the car for 1996. This coming a few months after rumors swirled that Jarrett would be dropped after his early ?95 struggles. He would have a rookie crew chief in Todd Parrott. Yes, he was a veteran in the garage, but it another thing to get on top of the pit box. Talk about pressure.

So, what happened? Jarrett not only proved most of his critics wrong, but he solidified himself as one of the premier driver in Cup racing. To me, this is an outstanding performance for someone whose back was against the wall. He doubled his win total, led over 400 more laps (755) than he had in any other season, and averaged an eighth place year. He won the sports? biggest race for the second time, and the Coke 600, and the Brickyard 400! The three biggest races of the year were swept by Jarrett; think about that. All of this at the age of 39!

So, why did I write all of this? Beats the hell out of me. Wait?. I think I?m trying to say that a driver must find their utopia before achieving maximum results. Most drivers are unable to do this, yet Jarrett was one of the lucky ones. It is one of the more unique stories in the past few years, and one that deserves to be mentioned. While 1996 proved that Gordon had staying power, it also showed that Gordon (along with everybody else) would have to contend with Jarrett week after week for the next several years.


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