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Sunday, January 07, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Dale Jarrett

Dale Jarrett Age: 50
0 wins, 1 top 5, 4 top 10's, 10 top 15's

Avg start: 28.2, Avg Finish: 22.7

Points rank: 23rd Driver Rating: 57.5

#44 UPS Toyota Crew Chief: Matt Borland

2006 did not go the way anyone at Robert Yates Racing had hoped. For Dale Jarrett it was a season of struggles and transition but also hope. Jarrett's on-track performance was one of the worst seasons of his 22 year career. Four top tens was the lowest season total since 1989. He scored at least seven per year from 1990-2005. He went winless for the second season in three years. Things were rough on the track, but Jarrett does have a fresh start to look forward to in 2007.

After 12 years with Robert Yates Racing Jarrett will drive for Michael Waltrip Racing, helping to introduce Toyota to the Cup stage. This presents a new challenge for the 50 year old Jarrett. It's a new manufacturer, new organization, a new crew chief (again) and maybe a new perspective for Jarrett. While that is a lot of changes, Jarrett will keep UPS as sponsor. Keeping his same sponsor since 2001 guarantees the popular, “He's going to drive the truck” ad campaign will continue.

On the track the numbers spelled struggle for Yates and Jarrett. His season driver rating was 57.5, 29th among full time drivers. A fourth at Kansas was his only top five of the season. Even that was more the result of fuel mileage than a great run in a strong car. On the other hand he finished 23rd in the point standings. This means he didn't run well, but avoided trouble and finished races higher than he deserved. Some of this slump is attributed to Jarrett, much of the problems fell on the Yates team. They trailed the other powerhouse teams on every track except Daytona and Talladega.

The season was especially rough for Robert and Doug Yates. Coinciding with Jarrett's announced exit, Crew chief Slugger Labbe was also suspended four races for a sway bar infraction at Richmond. He was later released from Yates, along with fellow crew chief Tommy Baldwin and General Manager Eddie D'Hondt. Yates' other driver Elliott Sadler also left mid season for Evernham motorsports. 2006 was also the first season in his 18 years that Robert Yates didn't score a victory.

Jarrett did enjoy some highlights among the frustration. He started things off with a tenth place finish at Daytona and followed that with a ninth at Atlanta three races later. The weekend of the Darlington race in May, Jarrett announced he would drive for Waltrip in 2007. He finished 21st or better in the first ten races, including two top tens and four top fifteens. After the announcement, Jarrett's performance sunk. Except for a 20th at Michigan, he didn't finish better than 22nd for the next 13 races. He did finish strong with six top fifteen finishes in the final 12 races. It wasn't a dream ending for his Yates tenure, but he didn't mail it in either.

Heading to 2007 there are two big questions to ask. Can Jarrett still get up on the wheel or will he enjoy his golden parachute? Can Waltrip Racing provide consistent cars for Jarrett?

Crew chief Matt Borland left Ryan Newman's team at Penske to join Toyota and Jarrett. Jarrett's biggest complaint at RYR was the lack of engineers. Borland might place the greatest emphasis on engineering of any crew chief on tour. This is often a good trait, but last year it didn't serve Newman and and Borland well. They wasted the beginning of the season and presumably the offseason on perfecting the 2004 Dodge Intrepid. Borland will be Jarrett's sixth crew chief in three seasons. The addition of Borland and his fresh perspective should help reignite Jarrett.

He is assured a place in the field thanks to his Champion's provisional. He and Dave Blaney are the only Toyota cars with a guaranteed spot for the first five races. Jarrett should have no problem entering the top 35 and staying there the entire season. That means he can focus less on qualifying and more on the actual races. Unless the Camry proves totally flaky, Jarrett should be able to score 5-7 top tens. In the right equipment Jarrett is still one of the top restrictor plate drivers. He also has impressive numbers at Michigan, Atlanta and Bristol. He has won at 16 different tracks. His best chance for top tens are at these three track

Jarrett is one of the most popular and well-respected drivers in the sport. The tentative plan is to drive for two more seasons and then retire. Of course, drivers have changed plans before. Jarrett is past competing for championships, but given the right car at the right race he can still vie for wins and top fives.

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