DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Only five years have passed since then-unheralded Dale Jarrett won the Daytona 500 by daring to pass Dale Earnhardt on the last lap.
Jarrett has excelled since, winning the 500 a second time and finishing in the top four in the points thrice. Last year, he led the most laps, won seven races, and finished a scant 14 points behind Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon.
Jarrett's recent rise to prominence has led many fans to regard him as part of the new guard that will lead NASCAR into the next century, a man with many wins and surely a championship in his future.
The reality is that Jarrett, who rates as one of the favorites in Sunday's 40th Daytona 500, probably has a narrow window of opportunity to win a title.
Jarrett will turn 42 in November. He is seven years older than his dad, Ned, was when he retired in 1966 after winning 50 races and two championships.
While 41 isn't as ancient in racing as it would be in, say, football or basketball, it is the age at which many drivers begin to decline. Few drivers have enjoyed much success at the Winston Cup level after their mid 40s.
Richard Petty won a record 200 races and seven championships. Although he raced until age 55, he claimed his final championship at 42 and last victory at 47.
David Pearson ranks second in career victories with 105. He retired in 1986 at 51, six years after his last victory and 17 years after his third and final championship.
More recently, Darrell Waltrip has won 84 times. But "Jaws" has been toothless for so long it's easy to forget that he once was every bit as dangerous as Jeff Gordon. Waltrip is 51, and he's winless since 1992. His last championship came in 1985.
The grand exception to the age equation is Harry Gant, a brick of a man who stayed in prime physical condition by building houses when he wasn't racing. Twelve of Gant's 18 career victories came after he turned 45 in 1985, including two in 1992 when he was 52.
Bobby Allison also was stout late in his career, winning the Daytona 500 in 1988 after turning 50. But no one else stands out.
Jarrett is a fine athlete, a 6-2, 215-pound scratch golfer and former high school basketball standout. He works out and eats right, and, if he continues to get good equipment from car owner Robert Yates, he could be competitive for several more years.
What happens to older drivers is their reflexes slow, their bravado wanes and their stamina disappears.
Stamina is critical to running for a championship. Drivers face incredible demands, from the travel 34-plus weekends a year to the ever-increasing sponsor and media requests, to the time spent in the car testing, qualifying and racing.
Since the so-called modern era of NASCAR began in 1971 only two drivers have won championships after their 40th birthday: Allison in 1983 and Earnhardt in '91, '93 and '94.
Jarrett is a late bloomer. He won only three of his first 228 starts driving for Cale Yarborough, the Wood Brothers and the Joe Gibbs team in its embryonic years. Since joining Yates, Jarrett has won 12 times and taken in some $7.6 million of his career $11.3 million in earnings.
With all of the key members of his team returning this year, Jarrett has his best chance yet of joining his dad as a champion. "It would be the ultimate to be the champion of this sport in (NASCAR's) 50th year," he says.
One of the sport's all-time nice guys, Jarrett is on the verge. But his clock is ticking.
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