Dale Jarrett was watching NASCAR’s 1990 spring Sprint Cup race at Darlington, S.C., on television from his Catawba County home when Neil Bonnett’s car slammed into the water barrels in front of pit road.
Bonnett’s crash didn’t initially look to be too serious, at least not to Jarrett, who had won the Nationwide Series race on that same Darlington track the night before.
Jarrett would soon hear differently. And what transpired over the next few days would re-kindle a career that seemed to have stalled before it really got started – and into one that will be celebrated Wednesday when Jarrett is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte.
Jarrett, then 32, was driving exclusively on the Nationwide circuit in 1990. The son of racing legend and Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, Dale had started racing in Nationwide in 1982 before moving up to Cup in 1984. After driving for various teams in both series over the next seven years, he was suddenly a driver without a Cup ride as the 1990 season unfolded.
The reason is a familiar one in racing: Jarrett’s Cale Yarborough Motorsports team was losing major sponsorship, in this case Hardee’s.
“That was eye-opening,” Jarrett said. “It was one of the pitfalls of the sport my dad had always warned me about.”
Driving only in Nationwide, Jarrett was reduced to being a Cup spectator in 1990.
Two days after watching Bonnett wreck in Darlington, Jarrett’s phone rang. On the other end was Eddie Wood of the famed Wood Brothers, owners of Bonnett’s No. 21 Ford.
Bonnett had suffered what would turn out to be a concussion, Wood told Jarrett. The team wanted Jarrett to be Bonnett’s replacement driver for that week’s race in Bristol, Tenn.
“Eddie told me it could be for one, two or five races, they didn’t know,” Jarrett recalled recently. “I told them I’d take whatever they had.”
Jarrett would finish 11th at Bristol. Bonnett didn’t return that year; his injury was serious enough that he would retire that year (although he attempted two comebacks before dying in a crash during practice at Daytona in 1994).
Jarrett finished that season with seven top-10s and a fourth at the season-ending race in Atlanta. That was enough for the Wood Brothers to ask him back.
And a Hall of Fame career would truly be launched.
Jarrett would win his first Cup race in 1991 at Michigan. And although that was his only full season with the Wood Brothers, Jarrett used it to vault into NASCAR’s elite.
“We knew Dale was going to be a really good driver for us,” Eddie Wood said. “He was one of those drivers who would never, ever give up. It didn’t matter if he was two or three laps down; he just kept coming. That always impressed us.”
The security offered by the Woods’ full-time ride helped Jarrett develop as a driver.
“When you have that, you’re more relaxed,” Jarrett said. “You don’t feel like every week might be your last week. You can enjoy what you do. If you don’t know what you’re doing next week or next year, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Whether it’s business or sports, you can’t be at your best. It builds up a huge amount of stress.”
In 1992, Jarrett left the Wood Brothers to become the first driver for a new team owned by a Super Bowl-winning football coach named Joe Gibbs.
Eddie Wood said the Wood Brothers would have liked to have kept Jarrett longer. But they understood the nature of the business and held no grudges. Gibbs faxed a note to the Woods on Washington Redskins letterhead, thanking them for allowing him to hire Jarrett.
Jarrett drove for Gibbs for three years before leaving in 1995 for Robert Yates Racing. He would have his biggest successes with Yates, winning the 1999 Cup title and Daytona 500 in 1996 and 2000.
Now 57, Jarrett would eventually win 32 races and joins four others – Maurice Petty, Jack Ingram, Fireball Roberts and Tim Flock – in the Hall of Fame’s fifth class.
“Second chances don’t do any good,” Jarrett said, “if you don’t do something with them.”
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14