After a Silly Season in which drivers ran from ride to ride faster than Denny Hamlin could truck it around his hauler, it’s easy to question the loyalty shown from drivers to owners in the Nextel Cup garage these days. Contract issues between Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray that forced the hands of their former employers have forever altered the climate under which this racing community operates, possibly for good.
With betrayals and defections still fresh in one’s head, the first move of Silly Season 2006 has made it easy to question loyalty once again, this time with Dale Jarrett. At 49 years old and with time running short on his NASCAR life, Jarrett announced this weekend he was bolting from his Robert Yates Racing ride to newcomer Toyota for the final two years of his career. With 12 years under his belt at Yates, Jarrett has been soundly criticized in several circles for the move, especially when the recipient of his services is being given the equivalent of the "evil eye" by nervous competition. That’s a shame for Jarrett, because he should be applauded for this decision, for having the guts to stand up and take such a big risk so late in his racing life.
There’s no doubt Jarrett is leaving both an organization and a manufacturer through which he’s spent the best years of his career. Originally a temporary replacement for an injured Ernie Irvan to start the 1995 season, Jarrett has parlayed that opportunity with Robert Yates into a successful partnership that’s included two Daytona 500 wins and a Nextel Cup championship in 1999. Jarrett’s relationship with Ford runs even deeper, with his first Cup win being secured behind the wheel of a Wood Brothers Ford back in 1991.
The decision doesn’t come down to loyalty, though, and it’s not about the money (although at a reported $20 million for two seasons, it’s a nice bonus). This is a difficult admission by Jarrett that his time at Yates has simply run its course. After finishing in the Top 10 in points every season from 1996-2002, Jarrett’s finished 26th, 15th, and 15th the last three years. Since the beginning of that stretch in 2003, Jarrett’s only registered eleven Top 5 finishes—- in comparison, he had 24 Top 5s in ONE season during his championship year of 1999.
It’s not like the 88 team hasn’t been trying to recreate that success with top talent. The UPS car is currently on crew chief number six right now since 2002, Slugger Labbe, but the 88 team still finds itself consistently mediocre, with brilliance on the track being the exception, not the rule. Former crew chief Mike Ford is currently making magic with rookie Denny Hamlin, and Jimmy Elledge is doing the same for Reed Sorenson. Brad Parrott and Shawn Parker were talented crew chiefs in their own right. No restructuring Yates could do, however, seems to ever replace the chemistry Jarrett and former crew chief Todd Parrott had during their years together. Parrott was initially replaced at the end of the 2001 season, a move that, while Yates had his reasons, broke the back of an organization that has yet to get itself fixed. While Parrott’s come back for several short stints since to run the 88 car, things have never been the same; that magic communication between driver and crew chief had simply run its course.
Make no mistake, Jarrett could have finished off his career with Yates without a problem. A marketing machine, he’s beloved by sponsors, appreciated by teammate Elliott Sadler (signed through 2008, the year Jarrett plans to retire) and still had the respect of his organization.
Of course, all that gushing doesn’t add up to race wins, and all that marketing genius doesn’t stop a gentle fade into obscurity on the racetrack. Take the case of the Labontes as examples. Terry Labonte chose to remain loyal to Rick Hendrick for the final few years of his career in another situation where chemistry had run its course, and nearly a whimper has been heard of him on the track since. Meanwhile, brother Bobby left Joe Gibbs under similar circumstances at Jarrett and is beginning to enjoy a bit of a career renaissance at Petty Enterprises. Of course, Labonte is being lauded with praise for his decision now; but it’s easier to get the pats on the back when you’re working for a legend and not for the new kid on the block.
Certainly, moving to Toyota has its share of risks for Jarrett; simply take a look at the way Waltrip’s team has run this year. There are no guarantees Toyota money will produce instant results, and Jarrett doesn’t have the longevity needed to wait. On the other hand, if Toyota’s effort is anything like Dodge’s triumphant return to the circuit in 2001, Jarrett could have a handful of wins waiting for him, as well as possible spot in the Chase not once, but twice for a chance at that long-coveted second championship that would allow Dale to tie his dad in the record books. That’s a far better outlook than his last two years at Yates would likely have ever brought him.
No one knows what the move will bring, and that’s the beauty of it for Jarrett, giving him an opportunity to clear his conscience as to whether it was the driver or the team holding things back at Yates all this time. In a changing NASCAR world, there’s a difference between being loyal and being realistic; Jarrett chose to be realistic, and risky at the same time. There’s no reason to question that, other than to wish him luck the gamble pays off.
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