Robert Yates Racing and Dale Jarrett are already focusing on ’04
By AL PEARCE
IN MID-JANUARY THE annual Winston Cup media tour visited the new home of Robert Yates Racing in Mooresville, North Carolina. After several years in separate buildings, Robert Yates had finally consolidated his two teams under one palatial roof. He and his people were understandably anxious to attack 2003 with newcomer Elliott Sadler and veteran Dale Jarrett.
The two-hour visit gave everyone time to have his say. Yates and his son, engine-builder/general manager Doug, were absolutely giddy in anticipation of good things to come. Sadler could barely curb his youthful enthusiasm and Jarrett predicted a championship-cali-ber season. Rookie crew chiefs Raymond Fox III (Sadler) and Brad Parrott (Jarrett) were certain that greatness was there for the taking.
Jarrett and Parrott started well enough, finishing 10th in the Daytona 500 and winning the next weekend at Rocking-ham. That put them second in points, precisely the level of performance that Jarrett, Parrott and the Yateses had predicted just six weeks earlier.
Since then, though, the UPS-backed No. 88 Ford team has been struggling, to say the least.
In 15 starts since Rockingham Jarrett has qualified top-15 just once and finished top-10 only twice, most recently his 10th in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona Beach. He has three finishes in the 40s, five in the 30s, two in the 20s, three between 11th and 19th and four top-10s. He has fallen from second place in February to an embarrassing 28th. (Sadler has been only marginally better: a pole, two top-fives, six top-10s and three DNFs in 17 starts. He has two finishes in the 40s, three in the 30s, five in the 20s and one in the teens. In the last six races he has fallen from 10th in points to 18th.)
Of the two, Jarrett’s struggles are far more newsworthy. After all, he has finished top-10 in points eight times in the last 10 seasons. He won the 1999 championship with Yates and was top-five in points five other times. Among his 31 career wins are three Daytona 500s, two Brickyard 400s and a Coca-Cola 600. He has won at 16 of the tour’s 23 tracks and has at least one victory in 13 of the last 14 seasons. In mid-April, with Jarrett 17th in points and team morale sagging, Robert Yates pulled the plug. He fired Parrott and his older brother Todd Parrott (technically on a leave of absence), the team’s general manager and ’99 Cup-winning crew chief. Yates eventually named Shawn Parker crew chief and Jason Burdett car chief, but it hasn’t helped much.
“To say it’s been a struggle is putting it mildly,” Jarrett said during a recent conference call. “That’s because of the personnel changes and the problems getting our cars to handle. We’ve found a lot of things aerodynamically that make us feel we’re starting to right this ship. We’ve done a lot of chassis work over the last few weeks. I look for these last 20 races to be much improved.”
Without naming names, Jarrett suggested Todd Parrott was the root of the problem. The elder Parrott was Jarrett’s crew chief from 1995 through 2001, when he briefly served as team manager before returning as crew chief. Twenty-seven of Jarrett’s 31 career wins and all 15 of his poles came with Parrott leading the team. He was in charge of building cars, and Jarrett suggested he tried to customize each car instead of building them basically alike.
“What we started doing— I say that as a team, but it was the person in charge—was changing things on our chassis and the ways we built them,” Jarrett said. “One thing we cautioned each other about when we started this in 1997 was [not to] reinvent the wheel.
But we’ve found that none of our chassis is alike. There are little changes in each of them, so we’re trying to get back to basics. That’s where you have to start when you get in a situation like this. We had so much confidence in that person that we let him take care of that.”
Parrott chose not to counter Jarrett’s statement. “No comment about any of that,” he said while trolling for work at the Pepsi 400. “I’m not going to say anything bad about that team or second-guess myself for whatever happened over there. I’m not going to say anything bad about anybody. But it gets to you, being in a pressure-cooker situation like that. Things just didn’t work out; it wasn’t meant to be.”
But Jarrett’s comments beg the questions: Where was the quality control and who was double-checking Parrott’s work? “We were having periodic success—some success, at least—so we didn’t see a problem at first,” Yates said. “When the media tour came by in January, we thought we’d be great this year. We started the season like, ‘Man, we’ve got everything just right.’ After Rockingham we said, ‘Hey, we’re the best team out here.’
“But we started showing up at places and we weren’t very good. It happened again and again... too many times, in fact. We didn’t know what we really had until March and April, right around Fontana the end of April. That’s when we realized we might have some problems. You know, I sort of had the same feelings about a year ago, a feeling that something wasn’t just right. But I didn’t follow through and I’m mad at myself for not doing something about it. I waited maybe a year longer than I should have before starting to fix it.”
The team started by scrapping 10 Parrott-built chassis and building new ones. After firing the Parrott brothers and using several interim crew chiefs, Yates promoted Parker from Sadler’s car in May. With the championship clearly out of reach, everyone at RYR is aiming more at next year than this one. “This isn’t something that’s gonna change overnight,” Jarrett said. “We didn’t get in this hole overnight and we’re not gonna get out of it over-night. Obviously it’s been difficult, and morale can get down. You get in a race and have mechanical problems on days where you could have made some good gains. You know you have all the pieces to be successful, so we just have to keep our heads up and keep digging. There’s no substitute for determination and hard work and effort.
“I think the challenge of Winston Cup racing has changed. I’ve always said that as you race for a championship, you get focused on one thing. We got focused on the championship in ’99 and that carried over into 2000. Then we started trying to do things differently, knowing things have changed. The tires have changed and the chassis have changed. The things that brought us success have changed.”
To Doug Yates, the biggest challenge has been staying patient and supporting Parker’s rebuilding efforts. “When we’ve run good, something has happened,” Yates said. “When we’ve run bad, we’ve just run bad. Sitting back and being patient has probably been the biggest challenge, just trying to give it time to work itself out. We need to give Shawn and his people time to get the right equipment and time to go test.
“We’ve questioned everything from chassis to motors, but now we have a better handle on the aero and chassis. It seems like we’ve had a mixed bag of equipment the last few years and whenever you have that, it’s hard to be consistent from week to week. We’re trying to get back to that standard base.”
The cynics, of course, are having a ball with Jarrett and the UPS-based commercials about “We want to race the truck.” Want to, they snicker? Hey, hasn’t he been racing the truck all year?
(Photo)Dale Jarrett's car goes up in flames earlier this season at Pocono. In 15 starts since Rockingham Jarrett has qualified top-15 just once and finished top-10 only twice. (Photo by LAT Photographic)
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....