JOLIET, Ill. - Dale Jarrett already was preparing to walk away from Robert Yates Racing at the end of the year. Now his corporate sponsor is following him out the door.
UPS announced Friday that it will leave the Yates team at the end of this season, moving with Jarrett to Michael Waltrip's startup Nextel Cup team for 2007.
It's a major boost for Waltrip, who is starting a team nearly from scratch but now finds himself in the enviable position of having three fully sponsored cars next year when he only expected to have two.
He'll also have significant financial backing from Toyota, which is making its entry to the Nextel Cup series next year.
"Is it a coup? For our team, I guess it's fair to say it is," Waltrip said. "Because we know the infrastructure that we need to build in order to compete with the teams that are winning today, and this allows us to build that infrastructure at a faster pace. Money buys speed - that's obvious."
And when it comes to buying speed, team owner Robert Yates just sustained a major blow to his purchasing power.
Considered one of the most formidable teams in NASCAR a few years ago, Yates now must replace a marquee driver and sponsor at a time when finding either one can be a challenge.
"Obviously we would have liked to have Dale finish his career with us simply because I know we have been good for each other and he has repeatedly done the job for us in the (No.) 88," Yates said in a statement. "But now we are going to move forward and grow our company in a direction necessary to stay competitive."
Jarrett said he was excited that his sponsor chose to follow him to his new team. They will sponsor Jarrett through 2008, and may continue to sponsor Waltrip's team with a new driver beyond that.
"We feel very fortunate that we're the team that they chose and we'll continue this relationship for a couple more years," Jarrett said.
But Jarrett didn't play an active role in the recruiting process.
"Dale told us from the beginning, 'I don't want anything to do with you all talking to UPS,'" Waltrip said.
Jarrett said he recused himself out of respect to Yates, who has helped him win 29 races since 1995.
Driver Jeff Burton said drivers know that losing a sponsor can hurt a team owner.
"I don't blame UPS for continuing to (sponsor) Dale Jarrett," Burton said. "Jarrett is a highly respected winner that has done an awful lot for our sport. At the same time, they need to understand that the car owners that have financial liability in this thing, not the drivers."
Burton, who left Roush Racing for Richard Childress Racing in the middle of the 2004 season, said he doubts Jarrett would have left Yates if the team's performance had been better.
Jarrett has won only two races since the beginning of the 2003 season, but Yates remains optimistic about his team's stature in the garage.
"I'm convinced we are still one of the top-five teams in all of NASCAR," Yates said. "But we won't be satisfied until we are winning championships as proof that we're the best."
But will Jarrett and his sponsor be any better off with Waltrip, a new team working with a new manufacturer?
It might not really matter.
Patrick Guilbert, UPS's vice president of sponsorship, said that while winning is important, it's just as important to have a driver who can appeal to employees and customers.
"I don't know that any successful program that is built entirely and solely on performance," Guilbert said. "This sport and the venue that it provides is an opportunity to hit on all cylinders, no pun intended, that provides an opportunity to grow business, deliver that motivation platform for our employee base and perform at track."
Waltrip - who for years has both battled and embraced his reputation for being a better pitchman than driver - insists his team is serious about performance.
"Our PR story has been very positive, and we've done some wonderful things," Waltrip said. "But just equally, on the competition and performance side, we're doing just as good of a job. And we feel like that as we develop and unfold, that we will be a formidable group, able to win next year."
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