ATLANTA -- The fast lane has taken Robert Yates in so many directions, he still refuses to accept the inevitable notion that, at long last, it will take him to the pinnacle of racing success -- a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.
He has no reservations for the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York although his driver, Dale Jarrett, has a 246-point lead in the Winston Cup standings with only three races to go.
"I don't make any plans to go to New York," he said. "I just dream about it."
A career that started 31 years ago in the Holman-Moody garage has delivered everything that is both good and bad about racing. Speed has taken him to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500. It has taken him to bankruptcy. And it has taken him to the cemetery to bury friends.
He knows the only way Jarrett can lose the championship is to suffer a stunning, if not tragic, problem down the stretch. Yates has been here before and experienced more disappointment than any one man should endure, so he refuses to drop his guard.
In 1992, Davey Allison went into the season-finale at the Atlanta Motor Speedway with a realistic shot at winning the championship. But he was swept up in a crash with Ernie Irvan, and that allowed Alan Kulwicki to win the championship over Bill Elliott by a NASCAR-record 10 points.
A year later, Allison was killed in a helicopter crash at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
"He was almost everything I lived for," Yates said. "That whole team we had going back then, we had a championship team. We could win, and we could repeat a championship because we had a lot of confidence and we had the right technology at the time.
"There weren't any places we dreaded going. We were confident we were going to win races. You try not to think about championships so much. If you win races, championships come if you win enough of them, and that's what we had going on. I think (Allison) would have been a superstar for a long time."
The night before Allison crashed, Yates warned him to fly with an instructor. Allison agreed. But when his helicopter clipped a fence near the garage area and slammed to the ground, Allison had not kept his word. It was his first attempt at running the controls by himself.
Allison won five races in 1992 and was in sixth place at Atlanta -- good enough to clinch the championship -- when he wrecked on the 253rd of 328 laps. It was a crushing blow to a race team that backed up its swagger with performance.
A year later, the swagger was gone.
"(Allison) never had one of those grumpy bad moods," Yates said. "You could have the worst weekend you've ever had, and on Monday morning at 10 o'clock, we'd have it where we were going to out the next week and beat everybody."
Irvan became the full-time replacement for Allison in the final nine races of the 1993 season. The new tandem found the same magic and won two races to spark a renewed vigor for the future.
Less than a year later, speed delivered Yates more tragedy when Irvan crashed at the Michigan Speedway. His injuries gave him a 10-percent chance for survival and tested Yates' resolve in a business that doesn't stand still long enough to grieve. Irvan beat the odds and eventually raced again 14 months later. In the meantime, Yates hired Jarrett.
For the third time in seven years, Robert Yates Racing is back on top. His cars have never been faster. Jarrett has 22 top-five finishes in 31 starts, including four wins. And there's no sign of slowing down.
Last week, five members of Jeff Gordon's over-the-wall pit crew left Hendrick Motorsports to join Yates. Jackman Barry Muse, front-tire changer Mike Trower, rear-tire changer Kevin Gilman and tire carriers Jeff Knight and Darren Jolly all decided the future seems brighter with Jarrett.
"This sport has been driven to the point where every situation tends to get more specialized," Yates said. "This was just the next step to take."
Yates' unwavering faith has allowed him to suffer the angry consequences when man and his machines don't mix. It is that same faith, he said, that will be responsible for any success he and Jarrett will enjoy at the end of the season.
"I don't think the Lord had in mind for us just to exist," Yates said. "I think he meant for us to use all of our resources. Vehicles are marvels."
So is the human spirit.
Next race: Checker Auto PartsDura-Lube 500 (Race 32 of 34).
Where: Phoenix International Raceway.
When: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Broadcast: Television - TNN; Radio - Motor Racing Network.
Track: 1-mile oval.
Last year's winner: Rusty Wallace.
Last year's pole sitter: Ken Schrader (131.234 mph).
What it takes to win: Phoenix is a uniquely shaped oval with 11-degree banking in turns one and two and only 9-degree banking in turns three and four. The front stretch has a slight bend to the left, making the speedway a rare blend of flat turns and driving challenges. The key is to find a setup that keeps the car glued to the lower groove, especially since there's a wall that juts out into the track at the end of the second turn.
Morris News Service pick: Rusty Wallace.
Drivers to watch: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton.
Winston Cup point standings: 1. Dale Jarrett, 4,772; 2. Bobby Labonte, 4,526; 3. Mark Martin, 4,438; 4. Jeff Gordon, 4,298, 5. Tony Stewart, 4,286.
Other races: Saturday - Outback Steakhouse 200 (NASCAR Busch Series) at Phoenix International Raceway.
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