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ThatsRacin.com


Jarrett's first win is foremost

TOM HIGGINS’ SCUFFS

- ThatsRacin.com Contributor
Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012

The question wasn’t surprising.

The answer was a stunner.

The date was Jan. 27, 2011, and Dale Jarrett was being interviewed at a Charlotte hotel a half-hour prior to his induction into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall Of Fame.

“What ranks as your favorite victory?” someone asked the 1999 NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It seemed a no-brainer.

Jarrett, who retired after the 2008 season, won the Daytona 500, by far the sport’s biggest race, three times. He scored at Daytona International Speedway in 1993, ’96 and 2000, twice outdueling Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR’s tough superstar, for the checkered flag.

In the 500 of ‘93 Dale Jarrett’s famous father, two-time champion Ned, dramatically called the last-lap battle as a member of the CBS telecast team. Surely, the younger Jarrett would name this race triumph or one of the others at Daytona as his favorite.

But no.

Without hesitation, he declared, “My favorite win has to be the Champion 400 at Michigan in '91. That’s the one I’ll like best forever.”

Eyebrows raised, including mine. I could see surprise on the faces of media members all across the room at the Hilton University Place.

Then, the driver explained.

“It was my first Cup victory and it came with the Wood Brothers, Glen and Leonard, who had been fine friends of my family for decades,” said Dale. “I had grown up admiring them. …And I was buddies with Glen’s sons, Len and Eddie, who were a big part of the race team.

“The Woods had taken a chance in putting me in their ride as a replacement for Neil Bonnett when he was injured in 1990. Winning for them at Michigan International Speedway with a big number of Ford executives and employees from around Detroit in the crowd couldn’t have been more exciting or fulfilling.”

Jarrett could hardly have won in more thrilling, spectacular fashion at the track in the Irish Hills, where the Cup Series teams gather again this weekend for the Pure Michigan 400.

Here’s how I recounted the story in the Charlotte Observer of Aug. 19, 1991:

Dale Jarrett edged Davey Allison by 8 inches in a dramatic duel of second-generation drivers Sunday, and won a Champion Spark Plug 400 thriller at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory.

The Ford duo, whose fathers, former champions Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison, battled side-by-side over the last two of the 200 laps at the 2-mile track. During the final lap, their Thunderbirds scraped sheet metal several times.

Allison, taking a high line, edged ahead coming off Turn 4 toward the checkered flag. They touched a last time about 100 yards from the flag stand, and Jarrett nosed in front just before reaching the finish line.

The breakthrough triumph came in the 129th big-time stock car racing start for Jarrett, 34, who lives in Hickory. His best previously was a fourth in the season finale last November at Atlanta.

It was the 95th win for the Virginia-based team of Glen, Leonard, Eddie and Len Wood, but their first since the 1987 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte with Kyle Petty, a stretch of 154 starts without a victory.

"It feels even better than I thought it would," said the jubilant Jarrett, a seven-time winner in his own Grand National car (now the Nationwide Series).

"If you're a driver, you sit around and imagine these things."

Allison came to Victory Lane to congratulate Jarrett and joined him for the post-race winner's interview.

"I don't like second worth a flip, but if I have to take it, I'm glad it's to a guy like Dale," Allison said. "I did everything I could. We were racing hard and this is probably one of the most fun races I've ever been in. It was close, but I knew immediately who won the race."

The furious finish was set up on Lap 188 when a yellow flag showed for debris – a piece of tailpipe – on the backstretch.

Before the caution, the situation seemed to favor Harry Gant, whose Olds could go the rest of the way on fuel while other leaders – including Allison, almost 4 seconds ahead – faced a gamble on gasoline.

The front-runners pitted during the caution, except for Jarrett, who was fourth when the yellow showed. His rivals took new tires in addition to fuel. Skipping the tire change put Jarrett back on the track first for the restart on Lap 192, with Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Allison and Gant following.

Allison swept into second place on Lap 193, escaping a Turn 4 bobble after contact with Martin's Ford. Allison then closed in on Jarrett and the two sped toward one of the closest race climaxes in NASCAR history as their fathers watched – Jarrett from his analyst spot in the ESPN booth and Allison from the pit road location of the Buick he owns and fields for Hut Stricklin.

"Credit for the call not to take tires, which probably was pivotal, to the crew," said Dale, who is leaving the Wood Brothers after this season to drive for a new team owned by Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.

"They determined our car was running its fastest all day on the tires we had on."

Jarrett conceded the outcome left him with melancholy feelings about leaving the Woods, whom he joined in April of 1990 as a replacement for the injured Bonnett. But he also expressed excitement about the new opportunity.

This, in most part, was my report on that day 21 years ago.

Dale Jarrett will be back at the Michigan speedway this weekend as an expert analyst for the race telecast on Sunday.

If fans are lucky, he will get to describe a finish as exciting as the one that provided his favorite memory.

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