The Callahan Report: Perseverance, Patience, Pits give Jarrett first win of 2001
By Terry Callahan
March 18, 2001
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
DARLINGTON, S.C. - When 43 drivers take the green flag at Darlington, they don't worry about their fellow competitors nearly as much as they do the "lady in black", one of Darlington's nicknames. Dale Jarrett, the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion, used the skills of his veteran status to grab his first victory of the young season Sunday. He didn't have the best car, but he did have the best team. A late race pit stop sent Jarrett to victory lane for the 25th time.
Perseverance: Jarrett started the race in second place but he went to the rear of the field early. It takes a unique driver to remain calm. Not only did Jarrett have to attack the track dubbed "too tough to tame", he had to pass 42 cars to get back to the front. With help from his crew chief, Jarrett settled in for an afternoon of traffic…and afternoon of determination.
Patience: Rookie drivers would have been in panic mode if they were in Jarrett's shoes. They would have driven into the Darlington concrete trying to do too much, too quickly. Jarrett's patience was key in moving to the front. Being a smart and seasoned veteran, Jarrett knew it was a long race. He picked the right places to pass, never putting himself in jeopardy of crashing.
Pits: Steve Park was clearly the dominant driver Sunday. Park, who won earlier this season at Rockingham, led the most laps. He had pulled to a five second lead over Jarrett before a late race caution bunched up the field. Park's day went from pleasant dream to nightmare in an instant. After the flurry of pit stops by all the drivers with 17 laps to go, Park was looking at Dale Jarrett's rear bumper instead of seeing him in his rear view mirror as he had much of the day.
"I tell you I would have had a better shot of holding him off than catching him," said Park. "It's hard to pass here, especially in such a short amount of time."
"We were real dominant on the long runs. This is a tough old place," Park continued (frustrated). "It wears tires out. We worked real hard on getting out set-up where it needed to be on the long runs. And with 17 laps to go, we knew we were in trouble. We pitted and came out second. I knew DJ (Dale Jarrett) was going to be tough. He ran us hard there and ran us clean in the end."
Park drives one of the three cars owned by Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI). Earnhardt died February 18, 2001 in an accident during the Daytona 500. Park and his team are still dealing with that loss.
"We're real disappointed and we hate to be disappointed with second," Park said. "This Pennzoil team and these guys have been working so hard. We've been through so much."
Earnhardt's son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., also drives for DEI. The younger Earnhardt continues trying to get his season on track. It will have to wait till Bristol (next weekend). Earnhardt Jr. "pan caked" the side of his car in an early race crash.
Park was given one last shot at Jarrett when NASCAR decided to throw a red flag with less than 10 laps remaining. Rusty Wallace pinched Mike Skinner against the wall heading into turn 3. Skinner spun and was hit hard by Terry Labonte. A fire erupted in Skinner's car, causing concern and the red flag.
"I guess somebody's (Wallace's) spotter didn't see who was out there or something like that," said an angry Skinner. "They turned up into us and just kept on turning into us. I don't know why they didn't just turn the steering wheel back to the left. But they just pretty much stuffed us into the fence. It was a tough break. I thought we were finally going to get us a top ten here in Darlington."
After a 10-minute stop in the racing action, Jarrett ran away from Park on the restart. Jarrett led only 16 laps. Park led a total of 164 laps.
Using teamwork, Jarrett is now on top of the Winston Cup point standings. He entered the race second in points behind Jeff Gordon, a five-time winner at Darlington. Gordon led more than 70 laps in the early running. An overheating problem caused Gordon's Dupont Chevy to exit the race. Gordon ended the day in 40th place.
"We kept adjusting on it and I thought we were getting better," Gordon commented. "But all of a sudden I looked up and the temperature gauge was about 250 (degrees) and it started sputtering after that. We came in and tried to fix it. I don't know if it was a leak in the radiator or head gasket or what it could have been."
Rusty Wallace was not popular Sunday. He also had contact with Tony Stewart during a routine pit stop.
"We pulled out of our spot and I was all the way up against the wall," Stewart blasted. "Rusty pulled out, pulled up beside me and then for some reason, moved up into us and put us in the wall. We were just lucky the car didn't get hurt any more than it did. But it cost us... we had a top five car today."
Moving on: Sunday's race at Darlington was the fourth race since the death of seven-time champion, Dale Earnhardt. The pain is retreating. Tempers and the typical demeanor of race drivers are coming to the surface once again. While Earnhardt's loss is still in the back of everyone's mind, the racing action and off track antics are returning to "business as usual".
This is a good thing, as the teams and drivers head to Bristol, TN next weekend. Bristol is a track made for excitement. As we all deal with a tough start to the racing season in our own way, Bristol comes at the right time. There will be sparks, dents, and waving fists...ahhhh.. racing returns.