NASCAR Then & Now: Dale Jarrett Learned To Be Great at Yates in 1995
While Bobby Labonte and Joe Gibbs prospered immediately with a successful start to what would be a 10-year partnership, Dale Jarrett was building a long-term union with car owner Robert Yates and their No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford team.
Yates was Ford Racing's source of extreme horsepower for the Thunderbird contingency, with former driver Kenny Wallace once saying he felt like "an astronaut" behind the wheel of a car racing with his engine.
His brilliance in building such power plants gave the car owner something of a high reputation amongst his peers in the garage area, with his machines often speeding to the front with relative ease.
Another reputation that the popular NASCAR icon had was his experiences with tragedy.
He was dealing with the loss of his young talent in Davey Allison during the '93 season, as well as the life-threatening practice crash of Ernie Irvan at Michigan just a year later. It was almost as if the racing gods were tormenting Yates and keeping him from ever tasting the Winston Cup trophy.
When the 1995 NASCAR season kicked-off, you couldn't blame Yates for having a bit of apprehension with his newly-hired driver. Sure, he knew that DJ was capable of winning races and contending for the title. Jarrett had won the '93 Daytona 500 and at familiar stops like Charlotte and Michigan along the way.
However, after two tumultuous years, he had to wonder if there was some kind of sickening factor that prevented him from experiencing his first championship chase since the epic '92 season.
Those doubts were put to rest temporarily when his driver scored the pole for the 37th Daytona 500 with a speed of 193.498 mph, nipping Dale Earnhardt for the number one position on race day.
With the combination of that famous Yates's horsepower and Jarrett's savvy driving style, the No. 28 team was off to a great start in '95 with a fifth-place finish.
Following another fifth-position result at Rockingham, NC, the Jarrett and Yates ticket ran into some inconsistency. Like the Katy Perry song, they were hot and cold, either putting together a solid performance or finding themselves plagued by the DNF bug.
Suddenly, Yates faced criticism from fans about choosing Jarrett to replace his primary driver in Ernie Irvan. For the first time since the 1990 season, the famed Texaco colors were not truly a part of the championship fold, just clinging on to a top-15 points position for a majority of the season.
Some questioned if Jarrett had the abilities to even handle Cup racing, merely standing up to the results and expectations of his predecessors. It was unfair, to say the least, as the second-generation racer was diligently working on rejuvenating his career in stock cars.
Here was a man who was coming off a rather disappointing 1994 season, a year in which he failed to make the cut at the fall North Wilkesboro race and placed 16th in the overall points tally. Those were hardly the kind of numbers that a Yates driver compiles.
Perhaps the fans were right, as Jarrett would only score a victory at the July race at Pocono, where he held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon. While a stout win for the 38-year-old Hickory, NC hero, it hardly staved off any fans' thoughts that Yates needed to head into a different direction in 1996.
Their wish was granted toward the latter portion of 1995, when Irvan had fully recovered from his injuries and returned to Cup racing at North Wilkesboro in October.
Driving a second car out of the Yates stable with the Texaco black and yellow colored No. 88 Ford, the Salinas, Calif. driver delighted fans, leading 31 laps en-route to a sixth-place showing at the 0.625-mile facility.
Meanwhile, Jarrett also had a stellar run in that race, finishing behind Irvan in seventh-spot after 108 trips at the front of the field.
In NFL parlance, Yates had a bit of a quarterback controversy. He had his old hurler back at full strength, while the hot shoe was starting to come into his own under the new "West Coast" offense employed with his team.
Unless you were Jack Roush or Rick Hendrick, the thought of having a multi-car operation seemed a bit ridiculous. After all, some had tried to run such teams, only to find that the combinations were fruitless.
Junior Johnson had a two-car team from 1991 to 1994, in which he paired Sterling Marlin with Geoff Bodine and eventually Bill Elliott. Marlin was steady and consistent, but did not win under his system, while Elliott nearly won the '92 title with six victories to his credit.
While Jarrett did not produce an exactly amazing season, he honed his skills and learned to harness the temptation of abusing a Yates-powered car in the Cup series. Irvan also appeared to have his swagger back, but the question as to whether or not the Californian could handle the stresses of a full-season campaign was up in the air.
Robert Yates had to come up with a solution prior to the 1996 season, and did he ever come up with a perfect answer. He returned Irvan to his No. 28 ride, reuniting him with crew chief Larry McReynolds in another chance to finish up some business from '94.
As for Jarrett, Yates awarded his steady new shoe with the establishment of a second team in the No. 88 Ford Quality Care/Red Carpet Lease Thunderbird. An essentially brand new organization paired with Irvan's establishment, Team 88 would be led by a first-time crew chief in Todd Parrott, the son of long-time headwrench Buddy.
Parrott was a well-regarded mechanic and crew member with Rusty Wallace who essentially helped with car set-up for the No. 2 Miller Ford team owned by Roger Penske.
When Robin Pemberton took over the reins of crew chief in the '95 campaign following Buddy Parrott's defection to the No. 29 Meinkee Chevy stable, Todd stayed put for another season, working on shocks and suspension set-ups for the "Black Deuce''.
The announcement of the No. 88 team suddenly sparked some anticipation and hope for the now two-car operation. Fans knew what the No. 28 team was capable of doing, but the Jarrett/Parrott combination was something to watch heading into Speedweeks 1996.
Essentially, Yates had the classic Steve Young and Joe Montana dilemma for the 49ers or the Drew Bledsoe/Tom Brady conflict in New England during the 2001-'02 NFL season.
Ironically, looking back at these set of events, it was Jarrett and Parrott who prospered tremendously. It was the 1996 season that truly started the Jarrett Juggernaut, if you will, in which he became known as a driver who knew when and how to win the big races of the Cup series.
From '96 until 2002, Jarrett and the No. 88 team finished in the top-10 in points, winning 26 times and capturing Yates' long deserved Winston Cup championship in the 1999 championship quest.
To say the least, it appeared as if Yates and Jarrett knew what they were doing in forming their partnership in 1995.
Sticking with the hot shoe ultimately produced the most successful years for Robert Yates Racing, almost in the way that Young continued the 49ers' winning tradition or how Brady made the Patriots organization successful and prominent.
As for Irvan, he would race a full-season campaign twice in his last four seasons, placing in the top-10 in points only once (which was the 1996 season, when he finished 10th).
He'd only see Victory Lane twice, and the hard-luck racer would bolt from Yates Racing following 1997, in which Ford installed USAC and NASCAR Truck winner Kenny Irwin, Jr. into the No. 28 ride. That partnership also failed to net success, prompting Yates to head into another direction in the 2000 season with driver Ricky Rudd.
When one wants to look back at a year that had tremendous ramifications on the scene and structure of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, 1995 belongs up there in respect and esteem.
It was the year in which the landscape of the highest form of stock car racing shaped itself for the closing years of the 1990s, greatly hyping up the Ford vs. Chevrolet rivalry that had always been an establishment of NASCAR.
For Jarrett and Yates, it was the year in which they both looked great, even if the results didn't exactly show on paper. Sometimes numbers can lie, because with a little hope and encouragement, amazing things are possible.
Just ask Jarrett, because the best times of his career came when he was an established veteran at Yates and as a racer emerging from the shadow of his father Ned.
When you think of Yates, you might think of that No. 88 car running circles around the likes of the Bowtie Brigade and the competition. Nowadays, the Yates organization has faded, and Richard Petty Motorsports now anchors the once-glorious stable with a four-car operation led by Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger, and Paul Menard.
As for DJ, he's established himself as quite the NASCAR on ESPN personality, serving as a color commentator for select Nationwide races and the network's run of Cup races each season on ESPN and ESPN on ABC.
While he may not sit behind the wheel, his insightful comments and observations are just as entertaining and indicative of the kind of racer and remarkable individual that he has become as an ambassador of the sport of NASCAR racing.
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