NASCAR & Auto Racing

Dale Jarrett has his eyes fixed on the road ahead

It has been five months now since Dale Jarrett unbuckled himself and climbed out the window of his Toyota after an otherwise forgettable 21st-place finish in the Sprint All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway and walked away from his driving career.

Jarrett went out quietly, almost softly, ending a career in which he was one of the best drivers of his generation.

Since then, as Jarrett, 51, has transitioned into a television analyst for ESPN, there has been just one moment when he felt the emotional tug to get back in a car.

"When I drove through the tunnel at Indianapolis (in August)," Jarrett said.

"It was the only time I even thought about it. But that part of my life is gone."

The feeling quickly faded, like Jarrett's desire over the closing portion of his career. Having won the 1999 NASCAR points championship and three Daytona 500s, Jarrett spent the end of his driving career turning laps, not chasing victories.

The fun was gone, the thrill missing.

Knowing that, Jarrett was able to look forward rather than backward, toward a new career rather than lament the passing of his driving days.

"I had made up my mind; it was time for me to get out of the seat of a race car," Jarrett said. "I've always been pretty strong-willed. When I put my mind to something, I could convince myself that was it.

"If I'd been in a situation where we were better or competing for wins, it would have been a lot tougher to walk away at the time. I realized things had changed. The cars had changed.

"It was time for me to move on."

Jarrett spent six weeks doing what he wanted. That included a long overdue golf trip to Scotland and Ireland with his brother, Glenn, and two friends. Jarrett spent eight days playing golf and unwinding from a life tied to the performance of his race car and the demands of his sponsors.

With a five-year contract with ESPN, Jarrett is back at the track but in a different role. Rather than cocoon himself in an insular world, Jarrett must now take a broader look at the sport.

When he was racing, Jarrett needed only to concern himself with his car, his team, his schedule.

Now, Jarrett has found, he has to study the sport with a wide lens. He has to know what's happening throughout the garage, not just in what had been his corner.

Jarrett said his time commitment to ESPN is greater than what was required of him as a driver. His perspective changed, too, forcing him to look from the outside rather than from the inside.

"There are a lot of things that make it look totally different than what I thought was going on," Jarrett said. "Then I was focused just on what was best for my race team and for me. I was oblivious. I didn't know any news that was happening. I didn't keep up with that stuff. It didn't pertain to me.

"It wasn't that I wasn't interested in what was good for the sport, I always tried to do that, but all the stuff I need to keep up with my job, I didn't care to do that. Now I enjoy it."

In the broadcast booth at Talladega last weekend, Jarrett saw the race as fans see it and remarked on-air about how different it looked to him. He liked what he saw even if he hadn't always enjoyed driving at Daytona and Talladega.

"As a competitor, it was a day, you didn't dread it, but you looked forward to it being over. It's totally different from this side," Jarrett said. "I think I said on the air, it didn't seem to be that crazy when I was in the middle of it."

Jarrett has made himself a student of broadcasting, working to find the balance between being too technical and giving the fans what they want to hear.

"From the minute he stepped into the booth, he was as good if not better than any racing analyst who has been in the booth," said Neil Goldberg, senior motorsports producer for ESPN.

"He's the ultimate natural. It's a genuine and unfiltered presentation. He lets you understand how it feels out there."

With each race, Jarrett has gotten more comfortable in the booth. It's when he's in the garage that he feels differently.

"I don't have a place to go. I have to make my way around," said Jarrett, who always had a hauler as a sanctuary as a driver.

"It's interesting now how much (the drivers) confide in me now. There are things that went on in the sport that I knew many months in advance that were going to happen because my friends trusted to talk to me about them.

"But I couldn't say anything. I could have broken some news but I wasn't in that position to break that trust or friendship. It's been really good."

A few facts about Dale Jarrett

Born in Conover, N.C., the son of a NASCAR legend, two-time champion Ned Jarrett.

Secured his first win in NASCAR's top series at Michigan International Speedway in 1991, driving for the Wood Brothers.

Won the Daytona 500, the sport's Super Bowl, in 1993 in a close finish with Dale Earnhardt, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.