LONG POND, Pa. -- It's a long season, and fortunes can change as fast as you can snap a valve spring. But Dale Jarrett, a laboring dark horse through the season's first half, looms suddenly as a contender.
With the tight-lipped determination that has characterized his career, Jarrett has surged to second in points, 53 behind season-long leader Bobby Labonte, with 15 races to go.
The climb through the ranks has been typical Jarrett, without fury or fireworks but with an uncanny ability to make the best of what he has week after week.
Jarrett opened with a near sweep of Speed Week, winning the Daytona 500 for the third time. A tough stretch in March and April (blown engine, two wrecks) left him eighth in points and way off the pace in the hunt for a second consecutive Winston Cup championship.
Since Talladega, however, Jarrett has not finished out of the top 10 and has shown out of the top five just three times.
He hasn't won since Daytona, but he steadily has gained.
''We had engine failure at Atlanta, which we had none of last year, and I got in an accident at Texas,'' Jarrett said last weekend at Pocono. ''Other than that, we've been a lot the same as what we were last year.
''We don't have as many victories (as the three last year at this time), but not many people have as many victories as they had last year. It's been tougher to win.''
Only Tony Stewart, sixth in points, has won as many as three races. Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have won twice. The top three in points, Labonte, Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt, have one win each.
The 2000 season began in a muddle, with 10 different winners in the first 10 races no one dominant, no one taking charge. But the points system rewards consistency, and no one plays that game better than Jarrett.
The Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono last week was typical. Jarrett, after a tactical error in the pits during his last caution stop, fell to 13th on the restart but battled back to fourth. More importantly, he finished two spots ahead of Labonte, gaining 15 points.
In the 11 races since Talladega, Jarrett has finished ahead of Labonte six times.
The gains have been slight and slow, but he jumped to fourth in points at Dover, third at Pocono, and second last weekend, jumping ahead of Earnhardt, who was set back by a flat tire.
From here on, and all three confess to it, the idea isn't so much to succeed each week, but more not to fail.
''The way the competition is now and knowing who we're racing Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Labonte and a host of others, but especially those two we know they're going to have very few problems,'' Jarrett said.
''We can't have any more (did not finishes) and expect to win the championship, to be quite honest. We have to be able to finish these races, and unless they have some problems we can't have any slip-ups at all either.
''The majority of our finishes are going to have to be top-fives and top-10s.''
Last year, Jarrett took the points lead at Richmond in May, built it to as much as 314 points, and never really had to breathe hard. He ended with four victories, 24 top-fives and only one DNF.
The game is a good bit more tense this season. Labonte is making few mistakes, and Earnhardt, despite falling 107 behind in third with a 25th place, is dead set on a record eighth championship at 49.
''We're racing for a championship here,'' Jarrett says frankly, ''and there are chances that others can take at times that the risk vs. the gain would be too great for us.
''I think it's going to be more about consistency over these last 15 races. I think all three of us will win again, but I honestly don't see any of the three of us getting to five victories.''
Still, Jarrett can stand back and look at the big game. And that's a game he knows how to win.
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