DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The car was wrinkled and bent, but Dale Jarrett's race team refused to panic Saturday. Then on Sunday, they refused to lose the Daytona 500.
It took as many as 20 workers nearly 12 hours to put Jarrett's Ford Quality Care Ford Taurus back together after he wrecked in the final five minutes of practice Saturday afternoon. The driver, however, was so confident all the pieces would again fit perfectly, he went back to his motorhome and had "the best night of rest I've had in a long time."
As Jarrett dozed, crewmen hammered, sawed and welded his race car back into shape. And after NASCAR turned the lights out in the garage area at 10 p.m. Saturday, the same workers were back at it at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday to their driver would be on the starting grid in time for the noontime race.
No wonder Jarrett slept: They made it with nearly two hours to spare.
Crew chief Todd Parrott, his eyes stinging from a lack of sleep and an afternoon that included a trip to Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway, turned a twisted race car into a speeding bullet. The assignment was staggering: Replace nearly 35 percent of the car's body, replace most of the suspension pieces and paint the entire car overnight.
"When we pushed the car out to the starting line, the paint was still wet," Parrott said. "I was afraid the stickers were going to slide off once the race started. It wasn't pretty up close, but it got the job done."
During practice Saturday, Jarrett tangled with Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon as all three tried to miss Mike Bliss as he abruptly slowed in the second turn. Jarrett's car suffered damage to the front and rear bumpers, as well as both front fenders and the hood. At first, the challenge seemed impossible. But doubt soon transformed itself into the same kind of determination that allowed Jarrett and Parrott to win the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship a year ago.
"The range of emotions in a 24-hour period are pretty incredible," Jarrett said. "Everything had gone so smoothly for us since we got here about 10 days ago, then (Saturday) while we were making our last little run there, we got involved in that accident, bending the car up. Just knowing the time and effort all of us put forth, because that's what it takes to make these cars to go fast here, and knowing we took a lot of that out of our hands was disappointing.
"Todd checked the chassis over and when he said the chassis was OK, he was pretty confident that he could get his people here early (Sunday morning) and they could rebuild the front end. They started that at 4:45 this morning and they put a new front-left fender, repaired the nose, repaired the right-front fender and the hood on the front-left corner. There were a lot of pieces that had to be replaced and they had to fix the rear bumper. They did that last night until 10 and were back in there at 4:45 this morning.
"It was an incredible job. That's where the credit goes. The car drove just like it had been, so the chassis was OK. It was just as good as it had been before. When (Parrott) tells me everything's OK, I believe him."
Jarrett led a race-best 89 laps Sunday, including the final four after passing Johnny Benson for the victory. The win rejuvenated the weary Robert Yates Racing team into bypassing yet another night of sleep for a much-needed, well-deserved celebration."
"I think I got 3 hours, 45 minutes of sleep last night," Parrott said. "I'm not going to get much more tonight because I'm going to be celebrating. I didn't sleep very good (Saturday night) because this is the Daytona 500 and I know how bad we wanted to win it. I knew it had to be absolutely perfect."
Parrott knows he's also got to get back to work on building another superspeedway car for Jarrett since the winning car automatically becomes an attraction at Daytona USA for the next year. To take a winning car from the Daytona 500 is like forcing the starting quarterback from a Super Bowl Championship team to sit on a stool at the Football Hall of Fame for a year, but Jarrett isn't too concerned.
"Todd will build me another one just like it," he said.
Parrott slowly is getting more and more of the credit for Jarrett's success. The team won the pole position for the Daytona 500 as well as two all-star races for pole winners. But when he managed to turn Jarrett's damaged car into an attraction at Daytona USA, it solidified his place as one of the premier wrench-turners in the business.
"If you want something bad enough and you'll work hard enough and sacrifice everything -- and you have confidence in your driver, your team, yourself -- you can accomplish these goals," Parrott said. "Today, you saw living proof of that."
NASCAR allowed the teams involved with the accident to work in the garage area Saturday night three hours after scheduled closing. Then it opened the doors at 4:45 on race morning to complete the repairs.
"If they would have let me stay all night, we would have worked on it all night and had it out on the (starting) line at 8 this morning," Parrott said. "We flew down three of our fabricators (from Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday night) and we watched replays of the crash. We saw what was damaged, then we developed a game plan for (Sunday morning) and we were ready to go when the garage opened. I'd say about 35 percent of that car was brand new by the time we finished working on it."
Fenders, as it turns out, are easy to fix in near-impossible situations. Confidence at Robert Yates Racing, as it turns out, is just as impossible to break under the same set of circumstances.
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