Jarrett, Stewart Claim Victory
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) _ Dale Jarrett struggled to keep the tears from streaming down his face.
It was the first time all year Jarrett has held anything back.
He finished fifth in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, good enough to win his first NASCAR Winston Cup points championship.
And it was an emotional victory.
``It’s just incredible,″ he said. ``It’s better than I ever thought it was going to be.″
Jarrett and his father, Ned, who won two series championships, join Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-son combinations to win NASCAR titles.
The younger Jarrett did it with consistency.
``He did exactly what he had to do and he did it with class,″ said Tony Stewart, the Pennzoil 400 winner. ``He’s a great person. You can learn a lot from somebody like that.
``He’s been consistent, and that’s what wins championships. He deserves it.″
Jarrett’s four victories, 23 top fives and 28 top 10s in 33 starts gave Robert Yates his first title since becoming a car owner in 1989.
Jarrett led the points race since May 11 in Richmond, Va.
``We were running well, we were consistent and we weren’t having any problems,″ said Jarrett, who turns 43 in two weeks. ``That’s when I knew we were kind of in control of our own destiny and if we didn’t mess up and do crazy things that this could happen.″
Jarrett goes into next week’s season finale in Atlanta 211 points ahead of Bobby Labonte, with a maximum of 185 points remaining.
Jarrett led just one lap Sunday, but he stayed in the top 10 throughout the 267-lap race.
``Fantastic!″ Jarrett yelled after emerging from his No. 88 Ford. ``I’ve just got to thank God for the talent on this race team and putting me here with such great people.″
Jarrett admitted it was hard for him to keep his emotions in check as the championship came within reach, especially when the checkered flag waved.
``There was a little relief that we had done it, it was over with,″ Jarrett said. ``I think the feeling of accomplishment hit me more than anything.″
After he got out of the car and celebrated with his team, the excitement grew.
Jarrett and his team had been working toward this goal for the last four years, finishing close every time. They finished third last season, second in 1997 and third in 1996.
``Coming out and winning one race is nothing like what you have to do for an entire season, especially with the competition this day and time,″ Jarrett said. ``I think you have to realize that it takes time for us to learn, for us to work together, to get all the people in the right places and that’s what this is about in our fourth year.″
That combination paid off.
Stewart who led four times for 43 laps, is the first NASCAR driver to win three races in his rookie season, breaking the mark of two set by the late Davey Allison in 1987.
Stewart and Labonte, teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, exchanged the lead several times in the late going.
The race then came down to the last pit stops, with Labonte making his stop for a splash of gas and two tires on lap 244 and Stewart doing the same four laps later.
As Stewart raced off pit lane and back onto the 1 1/2-mile oval near the exit of turn two, he came out alongside Labonte. The two ran side-by-side for a few agonizing moments. Then Stewart’s car slid up the track and bumped his teammate, who slipped behind.
``I apologize to Bobby Labonte,″ Stewart said. ``I made a rookie mistake and drove into him. I just went in there too hard and couldn’t hold my line. But I was trying to win the race.″
Labonte, who saw any possible hopes of catching Jarrett in the points disappear with that pass, accepted the apology.
``I don’t think it mattered,″ he said. ``I wouldn’t have beat him anyway. I couldn’t figure out my tires today. That was my fault.″