DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Success often comes for those who wait.
That certainly can be said of Dale Jarrett, who didn’t reach the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series until age 30 and waited another four years for his first victory.
The second-generation star, who’ll be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame today, is among the sport’s ultimate late bloomers, winning the 1999 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at age 42 after 388 career starts. Only NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bobby Allison was older upon winning his first championship in 1983.
Jarrett, born Nov. 26, 1956, won 32 times, including at least one win every season between 1993 and 2003. He captured the first of three Daytona 500s in 1993, twice won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and also won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C. Jarrett won three times at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway although the track’s historic Southern 500 eluded him.
In all, Jarrett won races on 13 superspeedways and three short tracks. He also won 11 times in the NASCAR Nationwide Series where he finished no worse than sixth in the standings in six full seasons of competition.
Jarrett never intended to follow in the tire tracks of his NASCAR Hall of Fame father Ned Jarrett, NASCAR’s premier series champion in 1961 and 1965. In fact, the younger Jarrett was headed for a golf scholarship at the University of South Carolina — and hopefully a PGA professional career — before the friends he hung out with in Hickory, N.C., built a stock car to race at the local NASCAR weekly track.
The group, which included future NASCAR Sprint Cup Series owner, championship crew chief and television analyst Andy Petree, had a car but no engine. Jarrett was able to buy one at a discount from a distant cousin of his mother, Martha. It also gave him the right to replace Petree in the driver’s seat.
“It was the first time he showed an interest in racing,” said the elder Jarrett, inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. “Once he drove the thing in the first race that was it.”
Jarrett competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, along with his brother Glenn, now an MRN pit reporter and made his first premier series start in 1984, driving a Chevrolet for Emanuel Zervakis at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway where he finished 14th.
He took over Eric Freedlander’s Chevrolet in 1987 replacing Tommy Ellis but success was minimal. Two seasons with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough’s Pontiac team weren’t much better although Jarrett did collect two top-five finishes in 1989.
Neil Bonnett’s injury in 1990 opened up the seat in the fabled Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford. Jarrett finally broke through the following summer at Michigan Int’l Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich., where his recorded margin of victory over Davey Allison — pre-electronic scoring — was listed at 10 inches.
“The Michigan race that he won against Davey Allison is still one of the most exciting races to the checkered flag and one of my most memorable races,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame member Glen Wood.