If Dale Jarrett has any remaining doubts about whether he's a NASCAR superstar, he should consider this: At 9 a.m. on Sunday, three hours before the start of the Daytona 500, fans were packed eight deep around his garage stall at Daytona International Speedway to watch paint dry. It's not as if they didn't have other entertainment options. A combo was running through the Charlie Daniels Band's oeuvre on the infield grass. Any number of tours and promotions ("Get your picture taken in UPS brown!") were available. Still, a crowd gathered to watch a man take a blow-dryer to the fresh coat of blue paint on the front-left panel of Jarrett's Ford Taurus. Several of the onlookers videotaped the occasion for posterity.
Why would such a mundane activity attract so much attention? Because it involved Jarrett, the lanky, late-blooming defending Winston Cup champ who was in the process of dominating Speed Weeks. On the previous weekend he had won the 500 pole, with a speed of 191.091 mph over the 2.5-mile course, and the Bud Shootout, in which he overtook 14 cars in 25 laps. He looked invincible. Last Thursday, with his spot in the 500 grid already sewed up, he finished second in one of the twin 125-mile qualifying races. Then on the eve of the Great American Race, Jarrett's mojo—and, more important, his number 88 car—took a beating. About 45 minutes into Saturday afternoon's Happy Hour, the final practice session before the race, Jarrett's car was tapped from behind by Jeff Gordon's. As Jarrett struggled to control his car, his front end was clipped by Bill Elliott.
Jarrett's Taurus sustained body damage serious enough that car owner Robert Yates flew in three fabricators from his shop in Charlotte. They arrived around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, and when garages were allowed to reopen at five the next morning, the trio went to work welding a new fender into place and taking care of other damage to the front and rear ends. Then the cosmetic work began. "The paint was still wet [three hours before the race]," said Jarrett's crew chief, Todd Parrott. "I was worried the decals were going to fly off."
As omens go, the wreck wasn't the best imaginable—except to Jarrett's engine builder, Nick Ramey. "We'll probably win," he said as he stood in the inspection line with the fixed-up car 90 minutes before the race. "Every time we have a problem here, we win. We hit a seagull [in 1996] and won, and we hit a turtle last year and won the Pepsi 400 [run at Daytona in July]."
Ramey's hunch was right. But Jarrett's victory on Sunday, his third in the 500, had less to do with predestination than with the car that Parrott, Ramey and the rest of Jarrett's crew built for him. "Last year I had to try to make too many things happen," said Jarrett, who finished 37th at Daytona in 1999 after crashing. "This year I have a car I can be patient with." Jarrett led or ran second behind Mark Martin most of the afternoon until upstart Johnny Benson, who didn't have a primary sponsor for his Pontiac Grand Prix until the day before the race, gambled and took on only two new tires when most of the 43-car field pitted for a four-tire change on Lap 157. The quick stop gave him the lead, which he held for 39 of the remaining 43 laps, with Jarrett lurking behind. "Johnny ran really well," said Elliott, who finished third, "but Dale and [the other drivers in the lead pack] were using him. They were waiting to hang him out."
A six-car wreck on Lap 193 brought out the caution flag, and on the restart, with four laps left, Jarrett showed his hand. "I knew [the restart] was going to be my best opportunity because I had seen before that Johnny's car didn't get up to speed as good as mine did," said Jarrett. In Turn 2 he went low on Benson, who futilely tried to cut him off and fell back to 12th. Two laps later the race was effectively ended when Jimmy Spencer hit the wall, bringing out the caution flag that would fly alongside the checkered.
Jarrett led a parade of five Tauruses across the finish line- Jeff Burton was second, followed by Elliott, Rusty Wallace and Martin—giving Chevy drivers, who had been griping about their not-so-fleet new fleet of 2000 Monte Carlos, more reason to complain. But not all Chevy drivers took part in the factory fussing. "It's not Ford versus Chevy," said rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drove his Monte Carlo to an impressive 13th place, three spots behind top rookie finisher Matt Kenseth. "I think who's building your engine is more important than what kind of body you've got on your race car, and Robert Yates did a lot of homework this winter."
While Yates was doing his homework, Jarrett was getting used to his role as NASCAR's top dog. His ascension was neither speedy nor probable. He didn't get a full-time Winston Cup ride until he was 31, and at 37 he had two career wins. By winning the Winston Cup at 42 last year, he became the oldest first-time champion. Says Jarrett, "Kelley [his wife] and I sat down with our kids, and I explained, 'Hey, this is going to be a year that I'm gone a lot. There are going to be a lot of things required of me.' "
Jarrett's off-season commitments seriously cut into the time he could spend on the links, a favorite pastime. A few days before heading to Daytona he found time to play a round at Augusta National. An eight handicapper, he shot a 38 on the front nine, but his rustiness showed on the back side. "Amen Corner brought me to my knees," he said last week. "Double bogey, bogey, bogey." He carded a 46 on the back nine.
He was better down the stretch on Sunday, and his late pass produced a modicum of excitement for the estimated crowd of 200,000. During the twin 125-mile qualifying races there had been one lead change in 100 laps of competition. The soothingly sonorous tone of the engines, combined with the lack of action, led Larry McReynolds, Ken Schrader's crew chief, to suggest that the infield grandstand be replaced with cots. Dale Earnhardt said it was the worst racing he had seen at Daytona and testily declared that "[ NASCAR founder] Mr. Bill France Sr. probably rolled over in his grave if he saw that deal."