BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) – Dale Jarrett is hanging tough in his bid to make NASCAR’s playoffs, a spot few expected the former champion to be in this late in the season.

Yet Jarrett is tied for 11th in the series standings heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway and very much in contention for the Chase for the Championship. He is three points out of 10th, the final spot in the standings eligible for the playoffs.

At 48, despite no victories since the second race of the 2003 season and consecutive points finishes of 26th and 15th, Jarrett is showing everyone he can still get the job done in NASCAR’s top stock car series.

But, to lock down a spot in the Chase, which will be contested over the final 10 races of the season, Jarrett is going to have to post some solid finishes in the next four events – and Sunday’s 400-mile race could provide the momentum after a disappointing 22nd-place finish last Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen.

“This weekend is very important for this race team in particular,” said Jarrett, who posted the fastest time in Friday last practice session at 187.207 mph. “Michigan is one of the places where we’ve performed well at historically. But, when we were at Michigan in June, we were anything but competitive.

“On a whole we’ve struggled on the 1.5 and 2-mile tracks this year, and those tracks have always been our bread and butter.”

Jarrett, who finished 24th here in June, noted that a good finish Sunday could be the key for his No. 88 Robert Yates Racing team.

“If we can leave Michigan with a decent finish then that will, hopefully, translate into a setup that may work for us at California as well,” Jarrett said. “All of the next four races are obviously important, but we really need to try to get things started this weekend.

“Provided we don’t have any kind of mechanical problems or get caught up in an accident, we feel like we have a little more control of our own destiny at those two tracks. We know going into Bristol (next week) that that is a race where anything can happen, so we really need to be competitive this weekend.”

Jarrett, who finished among the top 10 each year from 1996 through 2002 and won the title in 1999, it’s a little embarrassing to be making such a fuss over simply vying to be part of the season-ending championship format.

“It’s not that it’s been such a great season,” Jarrett said. “We’ve been pretty solid, but we sure haven’t done anything spectacular.” Still, three top fives, five top 10s and 13 finishes in the top 15 in the first 22 races of 2005 have assured Jarrett a decent season, even with a change of crew chiefs – from Mike Ford to Bill Wilburn – midway through the year.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Wilburn said. “This is a good team, through and through, and Dale Jarrett can still flat drive a race car. There are some good things happening at Robert Yates Racing and I’m glad to be a part of them.

“I just hope we can do what this team is capable of doing in these next few races and we’ll be OK for the Chase.”

Michigan has been a good track for Jarrett, who grabbed the first of his 31 career victories here with the Wood Brothers team in 1991, holding off Davey Allison in a bumping, side-by-side last lap battle.

He has won three more times at Michigan, the last one coming in August 2002.

“I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Michigan is my favorite track,” Jarrett said. “I think a lot of guys would say this track is a favorite. It’s just an ideal track because it is wide enough for two- and three-wide battles.”

“As the race goes on the track changes a lot and you’ll find yourself changing the racing groove in which you’re running. So, while it does require a good handling car, it also takes a driver that is able to adapt to those changes that happen over the course of a 400-mile race.”

If Jarrett can make the right changes on Sunday, it could lead to the end of his 92-race winless string. But he would gladly settle for a top-10 finish.

“I said a few weeks ago that we can’t have any finishes outside the top 12,” he said, “and, with what happened last weekend, we really need to put together a string of top-10 finishes if we want to put ourselves in contention to make the Chase going into Richmond in a couple weeks.”

AP-ES-08-19-05 1727EDT


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