First, at Last
At age 42, Dale Jarrett finally locked up his first Winston Cup title
Fifteen-year veteran Dale Jarrett won his first Winston Cup championship and Tony Stewart became the winningest rookie in NASCAR history at the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday. Jarrett, who needed to finish eighth or better to clinch the title, came in fifth, 14.77 seconds behind Stewart, who became the only driver to win three races in his first full season on the circuit. Jarrett, 42, became the second-oldest first-time Winston Cup champion—Bobby Allison was 45 when he won in 1983—and made the Nov. 21 season finale in Atlanta largely inconsequential.
"I'll be 43 in a few weeks, and if [being that old] is what it takes, that's fine," said Jarrett. "All you can do is work hard and try to put yourself in the best situation you can at the proper time."
Jarrett's timing looked awful when he joined tragedy-riddled Robert Yates Racing in November 1994, replacing Ernie Irvan, who had nearly died three months earlier from injuries suffered in a crash in Brooklyn, Mich. Irvan had replaced Davey Allison, who had died in a helicopter crash in July 1993. Jarrett won only one race in his first year driving for Yates and was heavily criticized by media and fans, who considered him an inadequate replacement. "There were people who said, essentially, that I couldn't drive a lick," says Jarrett.
After Jarrett clinched the championship on Sunday, Yates broke into tears remembering how he and Davey Allison had started the team, but the car owner composed himself and beamed as he hugged Jarrett. "To all the people who were second-guessing our [hiring] move," Yates said, addressing the media, "after all the things he's had to shoulder and after the way he shouldered them all—suck it up, guys! He can get the job done."
The same can be said of the 28-year-old Stewart. On Nov. 7 in Phoenix he became the first rookie since Davey Allison in '87 to win two races in a season. On Sunday he became the first rookie to win back-to-back events since Nelson Stacy in '62. Not since Dale Earnhardt in '80 has a rookie of the year gone on to win the Winston Cup as a sophomore, but Stewart's thunderous start makes him appear capable of keeping Jarrett's reign short.
NASCAR's TV Deal
Gentlemen, Stuff Your Wallets
With the six-year, $2.47 billion deal with Fox, NBC and Turner Sports that was finalized last week, NASCAR jumps from sixth to third in TV revenue among professional sports organizations, behind only the NFL and the NBA. When the package takes effect in February 2001, NASCAR will reap more annually ($412 million) than Major League Baseball ($340 million) or the NHL ($120 million). Because the Winston Cup schedule includes only 34 races a year, NASCAR's rights fees will average $12.12 million per event, the highest in regular-season professional sports.
Why the spike in network interest? David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports Television, which put up $1.27 billion for the first 18 races each year, pointed to the ratings. "Winston Cup is the Number 2 [watched] sport on television in the regular season," he said last Friday. "It trails the NFL [in the Nielsen ratings] but beats the most recent regular seasons of the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL, and also beats the PGA average. Winston Cup is second in the male demographic. It beats the NBA by 27 percent with males 18 to 34."
Auto racing fans have spent the '90s surfing six broadcast and cable networks to find Winston Cup races but won't have to change channels as often in the future. Fox will air the first half of the NASCAR season, and NBC and Turner will share the second. The Daytona 500 telecast will alternate between Fox and NBC. Hill says channel stability alone could boost NASCAR ratings two points, or about 30%. Bray Cary, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting, is more conservative, hoping for an increase of 10% to 20%.