New champion Dale Jarrett may have taught rookie Tony Stewart a lesson Sunday, even though it was Stewart who won the inaugural Pennzoil 400.
Jarrett, knowing he had only to finish eighth or better to clinch his first Winston Cup title, drove to a solid, fifth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"He did exactly what he had to do and he did it with class," the 28-year-old Stewart said of Jarrett, who will turn 43 on Nov. 26. "He's a great person. You can learn a lot from somebody like that.
"He's been consistent, and that's what wins championships. He deserves it."
Stewart stood in the spotlight following his second straight win, something no other rookie has done in NASCAR's 52-year history. But he shared it easily with Jarrett.
"Fantastic!" Jarrett yelled after emerging from his No. 88 Ford. "I've just got to thank God for the talent on this race team and putting me here with such great people."
He stayed in the top 10 throughout the 267-lap race and goes into the season finale next week in Atlanta 211 points ahead of runner-up Bobby Labonte, with a maximum of 185 remaining.
Jarrett's consistent performance this season four victories, 23 top fives and 28 top 10s in 33 starts gave Robert Yates his first title since he became a car owner in 1989.
Jarrett led the championship race from the 11th race, May 11 in Richmond, Va.
"We were running well, we were consistent and we weren't having any problems," he said. "That's when I knew we were kind of in control of our own destiny and if we didn't mess up and do crazy things that this could happen."
Jarrett admitted it was hard for him to keep his emotions in check as the season stretched on and the championship came within reach. When the checkered flag waved, it was not elation he felt at first.
"There was a little relief that we had done it, it was over with," Jarrett said. "I think the feeling of accomplishment hit me more than anything."
After he got out of the car and celebrated with his team, the excitement grew.
"It's just incredible," he said. "It's better than I ever thought it was going to be."
Jarrett and his father, Ned, who won two series championships, join Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-son combinations to win NASCAR titles.
The younger Jarrett, who was considered simply a journeyman early in his career, blossomed into a star when he moved into the No. 88 car in 1996. He had finished third, second and third in the last three years
Stewart and Labonte, teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, exchanged the lead several times in the late going. Labonte had dominated most of the way, leading four times for 174 laps.
Stewart who led four times for 43 laps, is the first NASCAR driver to win three races in his rookie season, breaking the mark of two set by the late Davey Allison in 1987.
|Dale Jarrett, left, with crew chief Todd Parrott after winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship.|
Labonte wouldn't let his teammate get away, passing him for the lead on lap 200 in the battle of Pontiacs. But Stewart regained the top spot with a pass on lap 229.
The race then came down to the last pit stops, with Labonte making his stop for a splash of gas and two tires on lap 244 and Stewart doing the same four laps later.
As Stewart raced off pit lane and back onto the 1 1/2-mile oval near the exit of turn two, he came out alongside Labonte. The two ran side-by-side for a few agonizing moments. Then Stewart's car slid up the track and bumped his teammate, who slipped behind.
"I apologize to Bobby Labonte," Stewart said. "I made a rookie mistake and drove into him. I just went in there too hard and couldn't hold my line. But I was trying to win the race."
Labonte, who saw any possible hopes of catching Jarrett in the points disappear with that pass, accepted the apology.
"I don't think it mattered," he said. "I wouldn't have beat him anyway. I couldn't figure out my tires today. That was my fault."
Stewart moved in front for the final time on lap 258. He took the lead when Mark Martin made his final stop and easily pulled away. He won by 5.289 seconds, nearly a full straightaway.
With only five laps under caution, Stewart's average speed was 140.335. He won $278,265.
His third victory of the season breaks the mark set in 1987 by the late Davey Allison, and his 12 top-five finishes is also a rookie best, topping the 11 by Dale Earnhardt in 1979.
The victory also solidified Stewart's hold on fourth place n the points a finish which would be the best by a first-year driver in NASCAR's modern era dating to 1972.
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