ATLANTA - Every championship season has a defining moment, a crossroads that separates a winner from his challengers.
For some, it's the way they handle adversity. For others, it's how they manage success. For Dale Jarrett, the road to a probable NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship has been an exercise of both personal patience and mechanical brute strength.
There have been a few bumps in the road for Jarrett, but nothing that sent him off course in his quest to join his father as the racing champion of stock cars. Of all the championship runs in the last 20 years, this one's been easy. Maybe too easy.
The son of 1961- and '65-NASCAR Champion Ned Jarrett started the season with a 38th-place finish at the Daytona 500, but since has posted 22 top-five finishes in his next 30 races.
Jarrett has carved a path of consistency that's given him a 246-point lead heading into Sunday's Checker Auto PartsDura Lube 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway. If Jarrett finishes in the top 20 in each of the final three races, he will clinch his first championship.
The challenge Sunday - and during races at Homestead, Fla., and the season finale at Atlanta - is for Jarrett to step around all the land mines of blown engines, ill-handling cars and crashes that can turn a victory celebration into an autopsy.
"You can't go into a race thinking about that happening," Jarrett said. "What you have to do is go into a race with your equipment the very best you can get it. Then I have to make the right decisions on the race track. If you get caught up in something, it just happens."
Jarrett insists he can't afford to be conservative in the final three races. But at the same time, he said once the championship is clinched, he plans to push his Quality Care Ford Taurus harder than ever in a ceremonious joyride of the lifetime.
"Anything can happen anywhere," Jarrett said. "This is the most important race because this is this week's race.
"I don't think you can ever get comfortable. I'm enjoying all of it. It's really a lot of fun. The attention that's paid to our race team and me is really a blast. Here we've got the lead, and we have to know how to handle this. And we have to learn what to do in this situation. Once we get to the point where all I have to do is start to race (to clinch the championship), then we're going to hold it wide open and see what happens."
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton have won more money that Jarrett this year. Gordon's also won more races. While the challengers have had better timing in winning big-money races, they've also been susceptible to the pitfalls of running in the fast lane.
Jarrett, on the other hand, has tip-toed around trouble. In 31 races, he's been a top-10 finisher 26 times. And when trouble found him, Jarrett had a classic response. After finishing 38th at Daytona, Jarrett fashioned a run of 19 consecutive races where he finished no worse than eighth. And after finishing out of the top 30 at Loudon, N.H., on Sept. 19, Jarrett has rebounded with five top-10 finishes in a row. The only major crash came at Daytona, and there has yet to be engine failure.
Ned Jarrett, who works as a television color commentator for CBS Sports, claims he has enjoyed watching his son's run toward the championship more than winning it twice on his own.
"It's exciting for him, and it's exciting for us," Jarrett said. "But we realize we have a lot of work to do, and if we're going to achieve this championship, we have to work very hard to make it happen.
"As I've told the guys, we've got to have fun at this because, hopefully, we will have other opportunities at this. We may not have another opportunity to be a part of a championship like this and especially leading it for as long as we have. So let's enjoy it, but let's not forget we have an awful lot of unfinished work to do."
But the important crossroads that eventually lead to a championship, however, already seem to be in his rear-view mirror.