BRISTOL, Tenn. As Dale Jarrett prepared for the last real start in his 24-year career at NASCAR's top level, praise for the 1999 Cup champion flowed around Bristol Motor Speedway.
Jarrett will start 37th Sunday in his final points race, his last time behind the wheel except for an All-Star race in May.
"He has had a heck of a career and I have had a blast racing with him," four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said on Saturday. "I feel fortunate to have raced him for some great wins, great battles for wins as well as for championships.
"He is just one of the highest-quality individuals and race car drivers that I have ever raced against."
The 51-year-old Jarrett earned that reputation through 667 starts that featured 32 wins three of them Daytona 500 victories and one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway one championship and more than $59 million in winnings. Along the way, he became known as a tough but classy and clean racer who developed into a true ambassador for NASCAR.
"When you see him coming in the mirror and he's faster than you, you just get up out of the way and let him go and he does the same for you," said Greg Biffle. "He falls along the lines of the Mark Martins and Rusty Wallaces and all the guys that have been at this level."
A second-generation racer, Jarrett grew up in NASCAR traveling the circuit with his father, two-time champion Ned Jarrett. And when Ned moved into the broadcast booth, the duo provided one of the more moving moments in recent history when the father tearfully called his son's first Daytona 500 victory in 1993.
Tony Stewart, who had yet to transition into NASCAR and watched the race on television, called it his favorite Jarrett memory.
"Seeing him win the Daytona 500 and having his dad doing the commentary live as he's coming down to win the Daytona 500 was pretty cool," Stewart said. "I'm excited for him as a person. I'm sad as a driver to see him go. You have to be excited for somebody like him that's done this as long as he has and he's leaving on his own terms."
Ned Jarrett will wave the green flag at Sunday's start as a tribute to his son's final race. Then Jarrett will follow his father once again, moving full-time into the broadcast booth as a commentator for ESPN. He started the job last season calling Nationwide Series races, and he'll move into the Cup booth this July when ESPN assumes its portion of the TV package.
He's preparing for this final race and new career with no regrets.
"As I've said a number of times, it's been a privilege and an honor to drive for the car owners that I have and represent the sponsors that I have," said Jarrett. "I couldn't have asked for a better scenario. If you gave me a chance to go back and do it all over again, I wouldn't have changed a thing about it."
He's driven for many of the top names in NASCAR: Cale Yarborough, the Wood Brothers, Joe Gibbs, Robert Yates. And he raced against the biggest stars, including Richard Petty, whom he watched race his father.
He wasn't afraid to take risks, either, signing on with Joe Gibbs Racing when it was a startup organization and sticking with Yates when it became clear the team was no longer among NASCAR's elite.
Then he took the biggest risk of all, leaving Yates and his comfortable relationship with Ford Motor Co. to join upstart Michael Waltrip Racing and drive a Toyota.
Jarrett's final full season suffered because of the switch. Waltrip's three-car team struggled last season, and Jarrett missed 12 of 36 races in a humbling send-off for a former champion. He failed to score a single top-10 finish last season, and he heads into his final start searching for his first victory since October 2005 at Talladega.
Waltrip will honor the commitment Jarrett made to him with tribute decals "Thanks DJ, A Champion, A Legend, a Friend" on his cars.
"We are very grateful for everything DJ has done not only for MWR, but for NASCAR," Waltrip said. "He has been an invaluable resource to Michael Waltrip Racing ... and he will continue to be."
And he'll continue to have a presence in the garage through his work with ESPN. It should make him available as a mentor to newcomers in search of guidance, and many of today's younger drivers fondly recall Jarrett being among the first well-wishers to visit them in Victory Lane following their initial Cup wins.
That kind of support stuck with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was stunned to see Jarrett at the early morning celebration of his 2001 victory at Daytona that came just four months after his father was killed at the race track.
"I looked to my right and standing next to me was Dale Jarrett," Earnhardt recalled. "I asked him what he was still doing there ... he said 'I wouldn't miss this. That was the coolest thing I have ever seen you do.'
"That was just, I don't know, it showed me a lot about his character right there. At that time in my life, it meant a lot to me for somebody to care and want to experience that with you. Obviously there was a void there for me and it meant a lot to me that he understood that."
As driver after driver recalled their favorite DJ moment this past week, Jarrett was forced to look back on what will go down as one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history. He did it with mixed emotions that will undoubtedly be with him Sunday.
"I've found myself thinking about a lot of the things that have happened over the last 20 years," Jarrett said. "It's been fun thinking about it, but kind of difficult to see now that it's coming to an end. It's been great. I've had a wonderful time."
NATIONWIDE WIN FOR BOWYER: At Bristol, Tenn., Clint Bowyer outraced Kasey Kahne and the rain to win the Nationwide Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway when it was stopped just past halfway.
"It feels awesome," Bowyer said Saturday after a lengthy stoppage as NASCAR tried to resume the race. "I'll take it any way you can get it."
Rain delayed the start of the race by two hours, and when the field finally went green, all the drivers knew they were running against the weather. With dark clouds rolling in, the goal was simply to make it to the halfway point when NASCAR considers a race official and be out front whenever the rain resumed.
Bowyer was one of a handful of cars not to pit when Mike Bliss spun to bring out the sixth caution 100 laps into the event. Knowing the race only needed to go another 51 laps to be considered official, Bowyer gambled that the cars who did pit wouldn't be able to catch him before the rain came.
Kahne came close, weaving his way through traffic and moving right behind Bowyer as the skies darkened. He looked briefly inside for a pass for the lead, but didn't force the issue and was stuck in second when the race was stopped on lap 171 of 300.
As he sat in his car waiting for NASCAR to make a decision, Kahne lamented the lost opportunity.
"I should already be in the lead, I pretty much blew that," he said. "I should have pressed the issue a little bit and I'm disappointed I'm in second. I should be leading. He shouldn't be leading. I just let him have it."
HAMILTON GETS POLE: At Melbourne, Australia Lewis Hamilton got an early psychological edge over Kimmi Raikkonen by winning pole position Saturday for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix while the world champion will start near the back of the grid.
McLaren's Hamilton had the fastest times in the second and third runs of the three-phase qualifying session ahead of Sunday's race around the 3.295-mile Albert Park circuit.