DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With about five laps to go, Kelley Jarrett and the kids were getting antsy. They wanted to hurry down to victory lane.
"But we heard on the radio that Dale Earnhardt was trying to take the lead," she said. "We thought it would look pretty foolish if we're down there waiting and we didn't win the race."
No need to worry. Nobody, not even Earnhardt, could catch Kelley's husband for the victory at the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night. And the next question is: Can anyone cut into Dale Jarrett's commanding lead in the Winston Cup points standings?
The victory gave one of stock car racing's most popular drivers a 177-point lead over Bobby Labonte heading into the second half of the season. Not since 1992, when Alan Kulwicki overtook Davey Allison in the last race of the season, has someone leading at the halfway point failed to win the championship.
"That's a good stat to know," said Jarrett, in pursuit of his first series title. "I don't want to end that string.
"Without sounding cocky or overconfident, if we can continue doing what we've done, they'll have trouble catching us. But it only takes one
race to make this a close battle."
Jarrett, however, has been the most unlikely candidate to throw in a stinker this season.
His only bad effort came on opening week in the Daytona 500, an event he won in 1993 and 1996. This time, Jarrett was involved in a multicar accident that resulted in a 37th-place finish.
Since then, he has finished out of the top 10 only once, a 16-race stretch of consistency unlike any the 15-year veteran can recall.
"I can't remember being involved in anything like it," Jarrett said. "We've overcome some things where we shouldn't have finished in the top 10 and we did.
"We've done things we need to do to win championships. There have been days we needed all 500 miles, or all 600 miles, to get the car right. But we continued to work on it and get it right."
This race was won thanks to crew chief Todd Parrott's decision to turn the last pit stop into a quick "gas and go." On lap 144, Jarrett made a four-second stop -- maybe not even that long -- that gave him just enough fuel to complete the race.
Coming out of the pits, Jarrett opened up a big lead on Rusty Wallace and the rest of the field. A pair of yellow flags tightened the gap, however. And when the final yellow came out at the end of lap 157, it was Jarrett trying to hold off Earnhardt for one more lap around the 2 1/2 -mile tri-oval.
He did, then ran the last two laps of the race under yellow. So slim was the margin that Jarrett's car ran out of gasoline on his victory lap. It left some doubt as to whether he could have held Earnhardt off had the yellow not come out.
"I don't think it would have been any different," Jarrett said. "Earnhardt wasn't getting much of a push from anybody, so I was able to keep him kind of where I needed to keep him."
Earnhardt disagreed. He had taken on two new tires on his final pit stop. It helped him move from sixth to second in the eight laps before the final yellow came out.
At the finish, he was bearing down on Jarrett, looking for his second straight victory on a restrictor-plate track.
"I think within a few more laps we would have gotten by Jarrett," Earnhardt said. "He might have run out of gas, because he was really close. That caution really helped him."
It's one of those great debates that will linger for years to come.
And now, the drivers are hard-pressed to make the chase after Jarrett over the rest of 1999 even half as interesting.
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