Back in the hunt: Jarrett, Martin gain momentum
Sunday's Brickyard 400 could give each driver a boost in the standings.
By DAN GELSTON
AP SPORTS WRITER
Not long ago, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin appeared to be anything but contenders for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
But both have rallied in the last two months and hope to parlay that momentum into a position among the top 10 -- and a shot at the title.
Under NASCAR's new system, only drivers in the top 10 after 26 of 36 races will vie for the title, and there are six weeks left until that cutoff. That makes Sunday's Brickyard 400 even more an immediate focus than usual for Jarrett and Martin.
"All that matters to me is winning the Brickyard," Martin said. "That would make up for all the heartbreak that we've experienced this year. That would make a season."
Martin's second-place finish last Sunday at Pocono Raceway left him 13th in the standings, but only 89 points behind Kevin Harvick in 10th. Jarrett wound up 24th in the Pennsylvania 500 but is 14th, 103 points behind Harvick.
Jarrett could easily charge up the leader board at Indianapolis, where he and Jeff Gordon are the only multiple winners. Jarrett won in 1996 and 1999 and has four top-five finishes in 10 races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"I think this week can be huge for anybody in the eighth position through 15th," he said. "We know what it's done for us in the past when we've won this race."
Ups and downs
Jarrett's victory in 1999 helped propel him to his only NASCAR championship. But things haven't gone well in recent years overall or at Indy, especially on pit road.
Last year, Jarrett hit his jack man on a pit stop. In 2002, the gas catch-can was stuck in Jarrett's Ford as he roared away. NASCAR forced him to return for a stop-and-go penalty that ended any shot at victory.
Jarrett had a 4-second lead at the midway point in 1998, but a fuel blunder by his crew cost him four laps and he never recovered.
Now Jarrett is trying to reverse a distasteful trend that began after the 1999 season title. He finished fourth the next season, then fifth, and ninth before sinking to 26th last year. Jarrett's championship unit was slowly picked apart by other teams, leaving it without experience and the skills to keep up with technological advances.
In a rebuilding effort, Jarrett hovered around the high teens in the point standings for most of this year before third-place finishes in Michigan and Chicago and a ninth two weeks ago in New Hampshire bolstered his bid for a title run.
"We're going to have over a 10-position change and that's pretty major, especially in this day when you have as much competition as we have," he said. "If we happen to not get in the top 10, we know we're headed in the right direction and that we can continue to build the rest of this year to get into a better position for next year."
Jarrett sees Indianapolis and the following races at Watkins Glen and Michigan as "attack tracks."
"We may not be exactly what you'd look at as a top-10 team up to this point, especially up to the first of June, but since that time we have become closer," he said. "I think we could be a very exciting team in those last 10 races because of the success we've had at a number of those racetracks."
Martin has six top-10s -- including a second-place finish in 1998 -- at the Brickyard. He had seven wins in 1998, but only five since. His victory two months ago in Dover snapped a 73-race drought.
Slowly, he's worked his way up the standings. After Pocono, he declared himself a contender, and he considers himself one of the favorites at Indy.
"Do I think we can go there and win? Yeah, we won Dover," he said. "We can win Indy because we weren't dominant by any means at Dover, but at the end of the race there wasn't anybody that could run with us. That's how I feel about Indy."
True, but Martin also was helped by a 19-car pileup that knocked out some top drivers in Dover. Last week in Pocono, problems encountered by Harvick, Kurt Busch and Bobby Labonte drew Martin considerably closer in the points race.
The timing couldn't have been better for him and Jarrett.
"This team is really hitting its stride at the right time if we can capitalize on these last six races," Jarrett said.