PHOENIX -- The championship chase is really no contest any longer, unless Dale Jarrett forgets how he got around the track for the first 31 races of the season.
All he has to do to assure himself of his first Winston Cup title is finish 13th or better in each of the last three events on the schedule.
Jarrett will go into the Checker Auto PartsDura Lube 500K at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday holding a 246-point lead over runner-up Bobby Labonte and 319 over Mark Martin, the only drivers with any chance to catch him.
In fact, under the right circumstances, Jarrett, the son of two-time series champion Ned Jarrett, could wrap up the title in this 500-kilometer event. He would have to gain 126 points on Labonte and 53 on Martin, meaning the challengers would have to have a terrible race.
It could happen simply because Jarrett isn't ready to starting driving defensively to protect his lead.
"Our job is to try and win the race," he said. "Certainly, we know we have a nice lead, but we want to win. And we know that if we do win the race, then we're not going to lose any points to anybody.
"We're more intent on trying to run up front and make it more difficult for those guys than just doing what we have to do to get by."
The 42-year-old driver has seen both ends of the spectrum in Phoenix the past two years.
He won here in 1997, coming from nearly a lap down to dominate the late stages of the race. Then, in 1998, Jarrett came to Phoenix feeling ill. He was diagnosed with gallstones and Michael Waltrip replaced him. Waltrip finished 32nd.
That kind of a race could put Labonte and Martin back into the title picture, but Jimmy Makar, Labonte's crew chief and Jarrett's brother-in-law and former crew chief, said he doesn't believe in wishing bad luck to anyone.
"Those guys have worked hard through the years, and they've put themselves in that position," Makar said. "If they do continue on and win the championship, then it will be well deserved.
"It's much more gratifying to know you beat guys' heads up racing against them instead of them having a series of problems that took them out of the race. It's a little less gratifying that way, but obviously, you take it anyway you can get it.
Makar says Labonte won't be doing anything different on Sunday, either.
"The only thing we can do is what we've tried to do all year long, go out and win races, lead races, and get the points we can get," Makar said. "If we go home knowing we did all we could do, that's all there is for us to do."
Although they probably have no real shot at the $2 million prize for winning the championship, Makar pointed out his team is still racing with Martin second place, which is worth $630,000 -- $290,000 more than third.
"We obviously don't want to do anything stupid to jeopardize our position as far as second place in points."
Martin, a three-time series runner-up, has finished in the top 10 in nine of the 11 races on the nearly flat, 1-mile desert oval.
"It's not a track that is one of my favorites since it is so flat, but I can run well here," Martin said. "As long as I don't see any snakes or spiders, and have a good enough finish to gain some points on Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte, it will be a successful trip."
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