Dale Jarrett's long-awaited celebration is almost ready to begin.
He's been leading the Winston Cup standings since May 15, the 11th of 34 races. That's a long time to live with the pressure of a championship chase, especially for someone who has never won a title.
The wait could end Sunday in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"It's more fun than I anticipated," Jarrett said. "Also, a lot of pressure, a lot less sleep at times.
"But on the other side of it, when you're awake and a part of this, there is nothing quite like it. This is definitely the thrill of a lifetime for me."
Driving the Robert Yates Racing Ford, Jarrett built his lead to 314 points after the Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway on Aug. 22. Just about everybody conceded the title to him at that point, but Jarrett still has some work to do with two races remaining.
He holds a 231-point lead over Bobby Labonte and needs only to finish eighth Sunday to win the title. Jarrett could lose the championship only with disastrous finishes Sunday and in the finale a week later in Hampton, Ga.
Because he finished third, second and third in the points the last three years, nobody is really surprised by Jarrett's showing this season least of all him.
"I think watching teams that were ahead of us and how they handled the situation has helped us," Jarrett said. "Being smart, watching people like Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon win their championships, you watch how they race.
"They continue to race hard, but they race a lot more with their head at this time of year, and that's what we've tried to do."
Jarrett, son of two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett, believes there is some truth in the old adage that you have to lose a championship before you can win one.
"You have to go through championship scenarios to realize what it's all about; not only the racing, but the mind games that go along with it," he said.
If Jarrett does wrap up the title, he and his father will join Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-son combinations to have won championships in NASCAR's top series.
How much of a role has Ned Jarrett played in his son's development as a race driver?
"I guess he learned a lot of things just by being around racing all these years," said the elder Jarrett, wh admits he's been more nervous than his son during this title run. "But remember, he was only 8 years old when I won my last championship, so he doesn't remember anything about what was going on then.
"If I made any contributions to his efforts along the way, I think it's that I taught him to be patient. He is really good at sizing up situations during a race."
Dale doesn't hesitate to ask his father for advice. The two have consulted often during this year's championship chase.
"We've talked about what you do and what's the best scenario," the younger Jarrett said. "Not only has he been through it, but he's been in a good position to watch others go through it and see how they've handled it.
"Driving a race car hasn't changed, and racing for a championship hasn't changed, whether it's 1965 or 1999. I think having someone like that to talk to has helped me stay focused."
With the championship so close, he can almost feel the elation. But his father is there to calm him down.
"You have to try to keep your feet on the ground," Ned said.
His son has learned that lesson but doesn't want to be so focused on winning the title that he misses the enjoyment of getting there.
"I've told the guys on our team I don't want them not to be excited," Dale said. "Like myself, I want us to enjoy this and be excited for what could happen here."
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