After two near misses, Team Yates has a Winston Cup title in sight
You'll pardon popular team owner Robert Yates if he's
pessimistic about his chances of winning his first Winston Cup,
even though his driver, Dale Jarrett, is running away with the
points race just as he ran away with last Saturday's Brickyard
400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Twice before, Yates has seen
a driver of his mount a run at the title--and twice the outcome
has been heartbreaking.
In 1992 a wreck in the season finale at Atlanta cost Davey
Allison the title, and he was killed in a helicopter crash the
following July. A devastated Yates then hired Ernie Irvan, who
restored the team's spirits. "We were on our way to winning the
championship in '94," Yates says, and then his voice trailed
off. That August, Irvan suffered life-threatening injuries in a
crash during practice at Michigan International Speedway. Now,
said Yates, "I expect the worst, and if things work out, fine."
Yates, long considered to be the savviest engine builder in
stock car racing, remains the horsepower guru for all of NASCAR.
The Ford engine in Jarrett's car generates "really close to 800
horsepower," Yates acknowledges reluctantly but with a slight
smile that betrays his pride. That's at least 40 more than his
rivals' engines, and it showed on Saturday. Jarrett led for 117
of the 160 laps, and even when he relinquished the lead for
brief periods, he appeared able to take it back any time he
chose. "I had such a strong engine that when I really needed to
go, I could come off Turn 2 or Turn 4 onto the straightaways and
stretch it out a little bit," Jarrett said after his victory.
Said Jeff Gordon, who won the Brickyard and the Winston Cup last
year but finished third on Saturday, "I think the Yates team has
things clicking even better than we did last year. They know
when to settle for a top five finish and when they're capable of
Jarrett's victory, worth $712,240, was his fourth this season
and extended his points lead to 274 over second-place Mark
Martin, who ran fourth in the Brickyard. "I don't want anybody
to wake me up," said Jarrett. "It's as good as it can get right
CART vs. IRL
ALL THINGS NOT BEING EQUAL
CART and the Indy Racing League appeared to be on the brink of
unification last week when negotiations were blown offtrack by
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and IRL founder Tony
George, who said, "I don't think there's going to be any kind of
unification for 2000. I think 2001 is questionable."
A sticking point is the implementation of an equivalency
formula--essentially the mechanical handicapping of one league's
engines--that would be necessary until the two entities' vastly
different sets of technical rules could be standardized. George
said last Friday he's against equivalency "absolutely. Period.
That will not happen."
His statement was baffling because equivalency formulas have
often been used in the Indy 500, so insiders on both sides think
George was merely posturing in hopes of improving his leverage
at the bargaining table. If he wasn't, major American open-wheel
racing, which has been on life support with dwindling attendance
and TV ratings since its civil war began in 1995, has virtually
no chance of recovery.
Despite his negative stance, all indications were that George
was planning to meet on Tuesday with several CART team owners
and executives. Stay tuned.
Darrell Waltrip's Exit Plan
WHAT TOOK HIM SO LONG?
Last Thursday, about a decade late, Darrell Waltrip announced
his retirement plans. He wants to drive through 2000, when he'll
be 53 years old and long past his last significant victory, the
1989 Daytona 500, which was widely considered even then to be a
final flicker in the twilight of his career.
Waltrip, who seems bound for the broadcast booth, says network
representatives "have told me I'm the prettiest girl at the
dance, but so far no one has asked me out on the floor with as
much money to do TV as I get to drive a race car." He'll earn an
estimated $1 million from primary sponsor Kmart for his final
season. "It's a matter of economics," Waltrip says. "It's that
simple." And that sad.
Waltrip is Winston Cup's winningest active driver with 84 career
victories, but he hasn't won a race since 1992 and has plummeted
into the realm of tragicomedy. Last season he failed to qualify
for races in time trials so often that NASCAR was compelled to
limit the number of provisional berths a race can set aside for
Waltrip acknowledged last week that his eldest daughter,
Jessica, 11, is too young to remember his Daytona 500 win, and
his youngest daughter, Sarah, was born the week he won at
Bristol, Tenn., in 1992. "ESPN and Speedvision have done a great
job of giving me some credibility with my family," he said,
referring to historical racing programming, "but that's all I've
got right now. I'd really like to win a race for these girls."
Waltrip choked up several times during his retirement
announcement, in which he pointed out that "I've done this for
40 years," going back to his go-kart days at age 12. His
reluctance to let go is understandable, but staying too long as
a NASCAR driver, unlike staying too long as a golfer or a
football coach, can be dangerous. Bobby Allison was 50 when he
was forced into retirement by permanently debilitating injuries
in 1988. Richard Petty's farewell tour four years later, at age
55, ended with his narrow escape from a fiery crash in the final
race of that season.
Waltrip joked that some fans have offered to start a nationwide
collection to pay off his salary and get him out of a car.
That's not a bad idea.
The IRL finally won over a big-name CART driver, two-time Indy
500 winner Al Unser Jr., who has left the Penske team. Unser,
who hasn't won a CART race in nearly four years, is shopping for
an IRL team.... The grassroots World of Outlaws sprint car
series could benefit from the chaos in open-wheel racing.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) plans to build half-mile dirt
ovals on the grounds of its superspeedways in Georgia, North
Carolina and Texas, and thrust the Outlaws into the promotional
spotlight. SMI president H.A. Wheeler believes the sprint cars
could eventually draw crowds of as many as 80,000.... Talks are
under way at Hendrick Motorsports to promote Jeff Gordon's crew
chief, Ray Evernham, to CEO over all three Hendrick teams....
Kenny Irwin, 1998 Winston Cup rookie of the year, didn't get
much of a vote of confidence from team owner Robert Yates after
finishing 13th in the Brickyard 400. "We put the same setup in
Kenny's car that the 88 car [winner Dale Jarrett's] had under
it," said Yates. "Kenny asked me to stay away from his team, let
them do their own thing, and it breaks my heart that that car
can't win." Translation: Irwin should be seeking another ride
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Points leader Jarrett blew past the competition--and a pit crew's stop signal--at the Brickyard 400.
COLOR PHOTO: BUD CUNNINGHAM/AP A shaken but unhurt Kyle Petty waits for help after escaping his overheating car at the Brickyard.
The increase in Pontiac's top five finishes on the Winston Cup
tour thus far this season (25) compared with last season
(eight). Pontiac's four wins are already double last season's