Editor’s Note: Want to see Tom’s Who, Where, What, When, Why, and How of what happened Sunday at Atlanta? Check out his Big Six column featured in the Frontstretch newsletter, our daily feature that gets sent right to your inbox. Click here to read Tom’s latest work – and to sign up for this thing, so you don’t have to worry about going through this whole process all over again!
Looking for a race rundown? Check out Matt McLaughlin’s race recap by clicking here.
As the smoke cleared from a wild and wacky Atlanta finish, I noticed a great story buried amongst the rubble of torn up tires, terrifying restarts, and tough luck for about a dozen drivers that should have won the race.
So, instead of turning towards the mayhem, my eyes drifted instead to a man that had avoided any such chaos, driving with his head to quietly come home in 19th place.
What’s so special about 19th, you ask? For most of the Chasers, that would be a pathetic performance capable of giving them heartburn.
For Dale Jarrett, it’s what you call your best finish of 2007.
“It was a good day for us, (even though) we were fighting a grip issue off the corner,” said the 1999 Nextel Cup champ, set to retire after the All-Star Race next May. “We were just back and forth all day and just never got what we needed (to get a better finish), ”
Those are modest comments from a man who’s failed to make one-third of the races this season. Truth be told, this weekend was the closest Jarrett’s been to the front since sliding behind the wheel of Michael Waltrip’s Toyota team; and while it wasn’t the finish the driver may have wanted, it brought the satisfaction that his fans were looking for. It was a top-20 finish, on the lead lap, with the car coming home in one piece; that’s a scenario producing the type of dignified emotion seen far too little this season when it comes to discussing this veteran.
It’s called respectability.
Look, I’ll delve into fan mode for a second; eight years ago, when covering NASCAR was a dream, not a reality, I was just a college kid hanging on to a favorite driver afraid to let go. His name was Darrell Waltrip – you might have heard of him – and his team was an absolute disaster zone. The No. 66 Travis Carter Ford he drove for failed to finish in the top 10 even once over the final two years of his career – and like Jarrett, Waltrip struggled to qualify through a mess of past champion’s provisionals and fan criticism that it was high time he got off the track. As the retirement tour continued, embarrassment loomed around every corner, and a legend lost his luster amidst a choice to hang on he wished he never made.
That’s why I understand how difficult this season has been for Jarrett, and most importantly, his legion of longtime fans that have supported one of the sport’s more popular drivers for so long. I see why they sit there and relish a third-place qualifying run from Friday, Jarrett’s best performance since starting on the outside pole at Talladega last fall. It reminded me so much of Darrell’s final race at Indy, a 2000 blast from the past in which he put his Kmart Ford on the outside of the front row in qualifying. Waltrip would go on to finish 11th two days later, igniting talk at the time he could turn around his floundering final season.
It never happened.
Chances are, Jarrett could easily suffer the same fate. At least the team is trying hard to put together the cars necessary to beef up his program; with just four races left, the No. 44 had a new chassis on Sunday, even though the old car is about to become a waste of space in just one short month.
“When they came to me and told me what they were doing, it really surprised me,” Jarrett said of the move. “But they felt like these last three races — here, Texas, and Homestead with this car, that this is something we could use. They felt like this was worth the effort to do that, and they did a tremendous job. We’re sitting 40-something in owner points, but it doesn’t matter because we’re still fighting and battling hard.”
Of course, the word battle hasn’t quite been associated with Jarrett so much as of late. Certainly, I understand how Jarrett’s got $20 million reasons to not be bitter about the way his career ended. In the end, it was his choice to get into hot water with Toyota, his responsibility as a driver to get this thing into races and compete.
But that doesn’t change the inevitability that another NASCAR champion is just eight races away from ending his career, nor does it change the basic pull of human nature to have that career end with any sense of decency.
“I miss seeing those guys a lot other than when they lap me, and that’s not a very good sight,” Jarrett said of how much he sees the leaders on a typical Sunday.
Here’s to hoping Jarrett keeps the leaders in sight a few more times before getting out of the cockpit.
Editor’s Note: Tired of hearing all the Chase hype overshadowing your favorite driver? Tom takes a look at how some other drivers outside the playoffs have fared over the past few weeks by clicking here.
Johnny Sauter is trying hard to land a Cup deal for next season – but unfortunately, it won’t be with Robby Gordon Motorsports. A source said Sunday the rumored deal with Gordon to start a second team – with Sauter bringing Yellow Transportation as a sponsor – is not going to happen. The 29-year-old continues to be rumored to handful of Busch Series rides for next season while finishing out the Cup schedule driving the No. 70 Haas CNC Racing Chevrolet. Gordon, who had previously expressed a desire to start a second team, has yet to announce funding for his primary car.
Take one look at Clint Bowyer‘s face, take one listen to his voice after the race, and you see he’s finally figuring out this Cinderella slipper didn’t come with a championship trophy attached. However, Bowyer virtually locked up third in points with another solid finish; he stands 111 behind the points lead but 150 ahead of fourth-place Carl Edwards with three races left.
Denny Hamlin‘s surprising late-race wreck – in which the car just plain stopped on the restart – injected some controversy when the sophomore sensation claimed there was water in his car’s fuel. While NASCAR denied there was any such water in the Sunoco pumps before the race, sources say the same type of mixture was found in Dave Blaney‘s car, with several others rumored to suffer the same fate.
“Well, I don’t know the certain situation of how it got there, but we just pulled what we had out of the carburetor out and it was a very, very good amount of water in there,” said Hamlin. “Even the bolts are oxidized, so that tells you right there that there was water in the carburetor. So, you can check the pumps, but the car is what’s burning this fuel. We had some issues earlier in the race with the car stopping down the straightaway. I felt it hesitating. So they said we got water that run. Evidently, we got it in the second to the last run too, and it displaced the fuel that we needed to go to the end.”
While Bill Davis is at least hearing out the offer from Jacques Villeneuve and Canadian Craig Pollock, don’t expect him to disappear entirely from the sport. Indications were this weekend that Davis is prepared to keep partial ownership in any such sale, and will remain involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, a la Ray Evernham of Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
Say what you want about Jimmie Johnson on the track, but off it, he continues to show himself as one of the most compassionate drivers on the Nextel Cup circuit. After the race, he announced all his winnings will be donated to the victims of the California Wildfire Relief Fund. It’s an issue that hits close to home, considering Johnson‘s hometown of El Cajon is less than an hour from downtown San Diego.
“We talked about donating the purse earlier this week,” Johnson explained. “Mr. Hendrick is in on it, Lowe’s has jumped on board, Mr. Smith, Mr. France, and I’ve heard of a few other corporations matching the purse today.”
“We feel confident over $1 million would be raised and sent out to the Red Cross, and hopefully, it encourages other people to get involved.”