- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — As Dale Jarrett prepared for the last real start in his 24-year career at NASCAR’s top level, praise for the 1999 Cup champion flowed around Bristol Motor Speedway.

Jarrett will start 37th yesterday in his final points race, his last time behind the wheel except for an All-Star race in May.

“He has had a heck of a career and I have had a blast racing with him,” four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said yesterday. “I feel fortunate to have raced him for some great wins, great battles for wins as well as for championships.

“He is just one of the highest-quality individuals and race car drivers that I have ever raced against.”

The 51-year-old Jarrett earned that reputation through 667 starts that featured 32 wins — three of them Daytona 500 victories and one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — one championship and more than $59 million in winnings. Along the way, he became known as a tough but classy and clean racer who developed into a true ambassador for NASCAR.

“When you see him coming in the mirror and he’s faster than you, you just get up out of the way and let him go and he does the same for you,” said Greg Biffle. “He falls along the lines of the Mark Martins and Rusty Wallaces and all the guys that have been at this level.”

A second-generation racer, Jarrett grew up in NASCAR traveling the circuit with his father, two-time champion Ned Jarrett. And when Ned moved into the broadcast booth, the duo provided one of the more moving moments in recent history when the father tearfully called his son’s first Daytona 500 victory in 1993.

Tony Stewart, who had yet to transition into NASCAR and watched the race on television, called it his favorite Jarrett memory.

“Seeing him win the Daytona 500 and having his dad doing the commentary live as he’s coming down to win the Daytona 500 was pretty cool,” Stewart said. “I’m excited for him as a person. I’m sad as a driver to see him go. You have to be excited for somebody like him that’s done this as long as he has and he’s leaving on his own terms.”

Ned Jarrett will wave the green flag at today’s start as a tribute to his son’s final race. Then Jarrett will follow his father once again, moving full-time into the broadcast booth as a commentator for ESPN. He started the job last season calling Nationwide Series races, and he’ll move into the Cup booth this July when ESPN assumes its portion of the TV package.

He’s preparing for this final race and new career with no regrets.

“As I’ve said a number of times, it’s been a privilege and an honor to drive for the car owners that I have and represent the sponsors that I have,” said Jarrett. “I couldn’t have asked for a better scenario. If you gave me a chance to go back and do it all over again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it.”

As drivers recalled their favorite DJ moment this past week, Jarrett was forced to look back on what will go down as one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history. He did it with mixed emotions that will undoubtedly be with him today.

“I’ve found myself thinking about a lot of the things that have happened over the last 20 years,” Jarrett said. “It’s been fun thinking about it, but kind of difficult to see now that it’s coming to an end. It’s been great. I’ve had a wonderful time.”

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