SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Unless the wheels fall off - literally - it seems nothing can stop Dale Jarrett's ride toward a first NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
The second generation driver delivered yet another convincing performance Saturday, winning the prestigious Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by more than two football fields. Beaten mechanically and emotionally, the competition now senses the final 14 races may be a mere formality.
"He's in the driver's seat right now," said Ray Evernham, crew chief for two-time defending series champion Jeff Gordon. "We've got to work on being able to beat him head-to-head, and right now we can't do that."
Said Bobby Labonte, who was a distant second at the Brickyard and third in the points race, "(Jarrett's) have the whole package. Everything's going their way."
Jarrett's Quality Care Ford Taurus led 117 of 160 laps, including the final 43 and 81 of the last 82. His laps led and 3.351-seconds margin of victory were race records for stock cars at the famed 2.5-mile speedway.
"I don't want anybody to shake me to wake me up," Jarrett said after winning $712,240 and increasing his points lead over Mark Martin to 274 points. "It's as good as it can get right now. To compare mine and (Gordon's) last two seasons, they won a lot of races (23). I don't see ourselves doing that. I hope that maybe we will and we'll win the rest of them - we've got a good start on it.
"We've had the kind of breaks that we saw those guys get through the season. We've had good racing luck. We've made a lot of things happen whenever we weren't the best car and you have to give the crew a lot of credit for that. They don't give up they keep working and that's what you see out of Jeff's team too, so I guess there are a lot of comparisons, but right now things are really going our way."
In 20 races, Jarrett has four wins, 18 top-10 finishes and 16 top-5 finishes. He started the season with a crash and a 37th-place finish at Daytona Beach, Fla., then he ran out of gas during the fourth race at Las Vegas. The rest of the starts, he's been in the lead pack.
A year ago, Jarrett drove the same car into the lead at the Brickyard 400, but his pitcrew miscalculated his fuel mileage and he ran out of gas. He dropped four laps behind, but he managed to make up the deficit in the final 200 miles to finish 16th.
"We felt like we left something on the table here last year," Jarrett said. "We made sure that wasn't going to happen again."
To make sure, the team installed a special light on the dashboard that was supposed to turn on when his tank only had two laps of gas remaining. A year ago, he ran out trying to stretch his mileage to 43 laps. His final scheduled pit stop for gas this year came with 43 laps to go.
But a late caution period when Dave Marcis blew an engine allowed every car on the lead lap to make a stop with 17 laps to go. That made a half a day's work into the dashboard light a mute point.
"I think after the trouble we had earlier in the year at Las Vegas and the trouble we had here at the Brickyard last year, coming into this race the last thing we wanted to do was have a fuel problem," said crew chief Todd Parrott. "We did spent three or four hours just making sure how much fuel we could pick up and how much fuel we could pick up and how much fuel that the car used under cautions - just exactly what it took. I think that was one of the keys to winning the race here today."
Jarrett enters next Sunday's road course race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., having finished in the top five in 11 of his last 12 races. He has accumulated 3,199 points to easily out-distance Martin at 2,925. Labonte's third 293 points behind, followed by Jeff Burton, who's 380 back, and rookie Tony Stewart, who's 488 behind.
Gordon's hopes of a three-peat are essentually gone. He's sixth in points, 507 behind.
Points are awarded based on finishing positions. Since the average between finishing positions is 3.2 points, Martin would have to make up more 85 positions in the final 14 races to have a chance of catching Jarrett.
"But if he keeps doing what he's been doing," Gordon said of Jarrett, "it doesn't matter what the rest of us do."
Unless the wheels fall off.
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