INDIANAPOLIS - The gray isn't creeping in from the sides any more - it has taken over. At 47, Dale Jarrett has a head full of gray hair, but he is still blessed with an athletic physique, sharp skills and an intense competitive burn.
Jarrett has been running in Nextel Cup races for 20 years now, but he does not show the mileage. He came here for tomorrow's Brickyard 400 more determined than ever to maintain his place at the top of the sport.
Jarrett won the Brickyard in 1996, a year when he finished third in the series points race. That started a run of seven straight years with Jarrett in the top 10 in the championship race - a string that was broken last year when he fell to 26th place. He claimed a second Brickyard victory, and his only series championship, in 1999.
With six races left before NASCAR's inaugural "Chase for the Nextel Cup" begins, Jarrett is fighting to be a part of the title picture once again. He comes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ranked 14th in points. Only the top 10 drivers after 26 races will participate in the chase, which takes place over the final 10 races on the schedule.
Jarrett is 103 points out of the top 10. While others grouse and moan about the new format, Jarrett contends it is still all about winning races.
"The points system hasn't changed anything, except that instead of everybody battling to be the guy in front, you are trying to solidify a place in the top 10," Jarrett said.
After the race at Richmond on Sept. 11, NASCAR reshuffles the deck. The points totals for the top 10 will be adjusted to essentially put those top 10 drivers in a tight pack for the final 10 events.
"Everything will change after we get through with 26 races," Jarrett said. "In the past, if I was 14th at this stage, all you think about is trying to get in the top 10 by the end of the year. Now, we're trying to get in the top 10 to basically give ourselves a second chance at winning a championship."
Jarrett, a three-time winner of the Daytona 500, expects a real dogfight among the block of drivers who make up the bottom half of the top 10, and the group on the bubble, which he is a part of. He said only the top five or so in the points race can afford to play it conservatively and assume they are already in for the chase.
"I think there are only a few guys who could even consider just riding it out right now," Jarrett said. "I think everybody from sixth on back at least to 15th - those positions can all change in these last six races, so I don't think any of them can just ride it out. You've got to race hard every week."
Jarrett, a four-time winner at Michigan International Speedway, has more than $42 million in career winnings. A former all-conference high school player in football and basketball who was offered a full scholarship in golf to the University of South Carolina, Jarrett expects to see the feuding and fighting in stock car racing intensify as the points race nears the cut-off point.
"It's the competition," Jarrett said. "You watch the sports shows or ESPN and that's all you've seen lately are the rivalries, whether it's the Yankees and the Red Sox, or the rivalries that go on in our sport. Anytime you have competition, you're going to have that. You're going to have tempers that flare at times and arguments, possibly even fights occasionally. That's just part of anywhere that you have competition."
Jarrett expects tomorrow's race to be a good indicator about which teams will succeed in the push to maintain a place in the top 10, or move up into that elite group for the chase to the championship.
"I think you will find the teams that are poised to win the championship doing well here, and that's a pretty good indication," he said. "It has been over the years. If your team is doing well enough to race well here, then you probably are doing well at most different types of race tracks. It's not necessarily who wins it, but I think the teams that run in the top 10 here are teams you can look for to be part of the championship."
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The gray isn't creeping in from the sides any more - it has taken over. At 47, Dale Jarrett has a head full of gray hair, but he is still blessed with an athletic physique, sharp skills and an intense competitive burn.