Dale vs. Dale: A Daytona 500 the Jarretts, NASCAR won’t forget


The 1993 Daytona 500, run 30 years ago today, is first and foremost a love story.

Yes, it was the Dale and Dale Show. Yes, it was the victory that sparked Dale Jarrett’s climb toward the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Yes, it was the first Cup Series win for second-year team owner Joe Gibbs, also a future Hall of Famer, who has since added 199 more of them. Yes, it was all of that and more. But yes, it was also a love story. After all, it did happen on Valentine’s Day.

To fully appreciate that day, we must put it within the context of the era. This Daytona 500 was the first race run after the retirement of Richard Petty. It marked only the second career start for a kid named Jeff Gordon, hailing from California and driving a rainbow-covered car he might as well have just landed from another planet. His boss, Rick Hendrick, was respected throughout the garage, but he also had yet to win a series championship. This was still the world of Junior Johnson, Darrell Waltrip and above all else, Dale Earnhardt. Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were still alive, the defending series champion and the defending Daytona 500 champion. People still believed that having a multicar team would never work.

Gibbs had just retired as Washington’s head coach, his final game on the sideline (for then, at least) had taken place only six weeks earlier, a loss in the first round of the NFL playoffs. The year before, he won his third Super Bowl ring as a head coach. A lifelong hot-rod enthusiast, Gibbs was making his foray into the NASCAR world with the assistance of Hendrick. Among his very first hires was an up-and-coming crew chief named Jimmy Makar, and it was Makar who suggested hiring his brother-in-law as their driver.

“Joe always said what a dummy I was because he didn’t even have an employee, we agreed together to hire Jimmy Makar,” confesses Norm Miller, then the CEO of Interstate Batteries, who had signed on to sponsor the No. 18 Chevy. Their primary corporate color was green. To old-school NASCAR racers, a green car was viewed as being almost as lucky as a black cat walking under a ladder in a room full of broken mirrors. “But Joe is a winner. I don’t know if you know this, but he won a racquetball national championship. And just as we’d signed on, he won a Super Bowl. So, I figured, ‘Well, if racing doesn’t work out, we got to enjoy some football and other stuff. Let’s just take a chance and see what happens.’ Jimmy, he wanted to take a chance on Dale Jarrett.”

The 36-year-old North Carolinian owned one career victory, earned in a nail-biter at Michigan International Speedway with the Wood Brothers in ’91. Even with that trophy, he was still viewed in the garage as little more than a journeyman racer, the well-liked son of an all-time great.

“I was certainly under no illusions that I was in demand, or that people were fighting over hiring me,” Jarrett explained with a laugh last fall. “But I also was taught at a very young age that even when others might not bet on me, then I should still have the confidence to bet on myself. I learned that from my parents, though I don’t think they ever thought those lessons would apply to me becoming a race car driver.”

Ah yes, Mom and Dad. And that brings us to our love story.

Ned Jarrett first met Martha Ruth Bowman at a small town dance in the 1950s. Ned was the son of a sawmill owner, and as a kid, he would sit at the local general store and eavesdrop on the local farmers as they excitedly chattered about a racetrack that was being plowed into a hillside in nearby Hickory. They bragged about how they were going to take their vehicle over to the oval and prove just how fast it was. Little Ned was immediately enamored. When his father took him to brand-new Hickory Motor Speedway, it marked the beginning of a lifelong obsession with stock car racing.

Ned and Martha married on Feb. 18, 1956, and the early years of their marriage were punctuated by Ned’s success in NASCAR’s Sportsman Division, the precursor to today’s Xfinity Series. His chief rival and best racing pal was Ralph Earnhardt. Martha Jarrett and Earnhardt’s wife, also named Martha, became inseparable.

The Jarretts and Earnhardts travelled together, ate together, helped each other through numerous pregnancies, and even hosted baby showers for each other. At one of those showers, Ned drove Martha to the event but refused to go inside. A few days earlier, Ralph had put the bumper to Ned on the final lap to take away a sure victory, and Ned refused to look Earnhardt in the eye. The shower was being thrown for Ned’s second child, a boy they would name Dale. The Earnhardts had a 5-year-old boy of their own in tow, also named Dale.

The reality of the racing life was that Martha Jarrett enjoyed her friends, but she hated Ned putting his life on the line multiple nights per week. That anxiety only increased when Ned moved up to the Grand National Series, what we now know as the Cup Series, where the racetracks were bigger, the cars were faster and deaths were entirely too common. This was the 1960s.

During the ’64 World 600 at Charlotte, Ned burned his hands pulling Fireball Roberts out of the inferno that ultimately killed his friend. Dale and older brother Glenn were watching from the infield. The following season, Jarrett suffered a broken back at Greenville-Pickens Speedway, asking the ambulance driver to turn off the siren and take it slow to the hospital when he looked out the window from his stretcher and saw Martha was following, behind the wheel of the family station wagon with the kids.

“We lived in neighborhoods where people had what you would call normal jobs, lawyers and salesmen, things like that,” Dale Jarrett recalled of his childhood. “Everything that we did as a family was very normal. We went to church every Sunday, Mom made sure me, my older brother and my younger sister were where we needed to be. The only part of it that wasn’t like everyone else was that Dad was racing at Daytona and Darlington. And he was good at it.”

Ned Jarrett wasn’t simply good. He was the best. He backed up his two Sportsman titles with Grand National championships in 1961 and ’65. He earned 50 wins, then second only to Lee Petty on NASCAR’s all-time victories list. The only victory that eluded him was Daytona.

“I can remember seeing him drive by in the lead right at the end of the 1963 Daytona 500,” Dale remembered. “He went right by us where we watched from the infield, but then ran out of gas.”

Instead, his signature win came two years later, a Southern 500 victory at Darlington by a stunning 14-lap margin and essentially clinching the ’65 title. The images of his sleek, dark blue No. 11 Ford Galaxie streaking around the Track Too Tough To Tame are iconic to this day, as are the photos of Ned and Martha’s embrace and kiss in Victory Lane.

Then, he retired.

“Ford was pulling out of NASCAR and that seemed like the right time to exit with them,” Ned recalled in 2021. “Plus, I had made a promise to Martha.”

That promise was that if and when he won a second Grand National championship, he would hang up his helmet. He did. Martha was so relieved. Her nerves would no longer be frayed from having to watch a loved one hurtle around ovals at 150 mph.

Ned tried to be a coffee salesman. That didn’t work, so he helped manage his father’s lumber business. Then he became the promoter of Hickory Motor Speedway and Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte. Martha sold tickets and ran the front office while the kids sold programs and hot dogs. She settled into motherhood, watching Dale become a three-sport athlete, so good that he received offers to attend college as a quarterback and a full scholarship to South Carolina to play golf. Older brother Glenn went to UNC as a catcher. Younger sister Patti met Makar.

Ned kept his racing bug fed first through his short tracks and then via a broadcasting career that moved from public address announcing at Hickory to MRN Radio to the TV booths of ESPN and CBS Sports. Glenn ended up on TV, too, as a pit reporter.

Life was good. It was safe.

“Then I kind of went and threw a wrench into that, didn’t I?” Dale admits. “I didn’t go to college to play golf. I decided, at 20 years old, that I wanted to be a racecar driver. I don’t think my mom was super happy about that. But she also never tried to stop me.”

Dale battled his way through the short tracks of the Carolinas and then became a charter member of the NASCAR Busch Series, the revised version of Ned’s Sportsman Division. He won a handful of races and by the late-1980s was a midpack Cup Series driver. Over his first 168 starts, he earned the one win and seven top-5 finishes. But he also scored only one DNF. He was a smart racer. Still, no one saw coming what happened on Feb. 14, 1993.

No one except for the Jarretts.

“I remember when we got to the garage for Speedweeks there at Daytona, we had been assigned garage No. 11, Dad’s number,” remembered Dale. “We had been so fast in testing during January, I remember calling Dad and saying, ‘Dad, I really think we can win this thing.'”

When CBS held its Daytona 500 production meetings and producer Bob Stenner asked his broadcasters what they expected to happen on Sunday, Ned told the room to keep an eye on his son.

“I told them, this is not me playing favorites, this is based on what I had seen and if they had really been paying attention to what they had seen, that Dale was really fast,” Ned explained nearly 30 years later. What he didn’t know that day was that Stenner later went to Ken Squier and Neil Bonnett, who were in the broadcast booth with Jarrett, and told them that if Dale Jarrett was in the lead or had a chance to win on the final lap that they should be quiet and let his father do the talking.

Sure enough, as the leaders crossed the start-finish line with two laps remaining, the green No. 18 Chevy carried enough momentum off the fourth turn to slide by Gordon into second place behind, of course, the black No. 3 Chevy Lumina of the other Dale. Earnhardt was at the height of his almost-mythical struggle to win NASCAR’s biggest race.

As Dale Jarrett moved into second, the CBS cameras showed Martha, her head thrown into her hands, unable to watch. She was sitting in a passenger van, seeking some solitude to ease her nerves. Those old feelings were back. The anxiety from decades earlier, only now it wasn’t watching her husband at some dirt track on a Wednesday night. This was her little boy, in the Great American Race. CBS had a TV monitor set up for her. Now they had a camera pointed at her.

From the booth, speaking to his wife but also to the millions watching at home, Ned said, “Hold on, Martha, he’s going to be OK, dear…”

Over the last round of pit stops, most everyone in the field had taken only two new tires, including Earnhardt. Makar, however, had decided to give Jarrett four. As a result, Earnhardt’s car was slipping and sliding, on the constant edge of being out of control. Jarrett’s ride looked like it was on rails as he rode up to back of the other Dale’s machine and used the push of the air to shake his opponent loose.

They flashed under the white flag nose-to-nose, Jarrett on the inside. As Jarrett led the pack onto the backstretch, Stenner’s voice crackled in the earpieces of the three men in the broadcast booth.

“Take it, Ned.”

“Come on, Dale! Go, baby, go! All right, come on. I know he’s got it to the floorboard. He can’t do any more. Come on, hang it to the inside, don’t let him get to the inside of you coming around this turn … here he comes, Earnhardt … it’s the Dale and Dale show as they come off of Turn 4 … you know who I’m pulling for, it’s Dale Jarrett … bring her to the inside, Dale, don’t let him get down there…”

As Ned said it, Dale did it.

“Ever since that day, people have asked me if Dale could hear me, like I was in his headset like a spotter or a crew chief would be,” Ned explained. “When I tell them that he didn’t, I don’t think they believe me. He just knew what to do. He certainly has never needed my coaching at Daytona, I can tell you that.”

“He’s going to make it! Dale Jarrett is going to win the Daytona 500! All right!”

CBS once again cut to the exasperated woman in the van. The mother who used to make sandwiches on the tailgate of her station wagon for her kids during races. The wife who tore tickets. The heartbroken friend who attended the funerals of her friends’ husbands who had died in the same races that her husband had run. She threw her hands above her head, then went down into a position of prayerful thanks.

“Look at Martha, oh dear!”

CBS pit report David Hobbs sprinted out to the van from the pits. As the cameraman reached out and congratulated her, the quiet woman said, “Thank you,” as tears streamed down her face.

“Oh, that poor girl, she needs help!”

In Victory Lane, Dale was handed an earpiece so that Ned could talk to him on live TV.

“I tell you, your mama was watching, and you can’t believe the way she broke down when this race was over,” Ned said. “Of course, you had to expect that. Proud of you.”

“You came so close, I believe it was in ’63 when you ran out of fuel,” Dale replied. “I thought we’d get this one for the whole family.”

Everything was still so new for Gibbs and Miller they didn’t realize they were supposed to stay for a post-victory news conference. Miller and his family went back to their beach condo. Gibbs went across International Speedway Boulevard to eat at Steak and Shake. That’s why the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team still goes there after every Daytona 500 win. So far, they’ve done it four times.

The Jarretts spent their evening in the racetrack infield. Because that’s what they’d always done. The following weekend at Rockingham, Ned found Earnhardt and apologized for showing so much favoritism over the final lap of the Daytona 500 broadcast. The Intimidator thanked him, but said there was no need, explaining, “I’m a father, too.”

Ned retired from broadcasting more than a decade later and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011. Dale won 32 races in all, became a broadcaster himself in 2009, and went into the Hall of Fame five years later.

During a visit to Ned and Martha’s home in Newton, North Carolina, in 2018, Martha expressed relief that her six grandchildren chose to excel in a lot of different sports, but none became full-time racers — although the oldest, Jason, did try before becoming a spotter.

“I miss my friends at the racetrack,” she admitted. “But I don’t miss being a nervous wreck all the time.”

On Feb. 6, 2023, Martha Jarrett passed away at the age of 91. Today is Ned’s first Valentine’s Day without his beloved in nearly seven decades. But as sad as that might be, as sad it will always be until he takes his place by her side once again, this day will also never fail to bring a smile to his face. Or ours. A family’s most memorable moment together, also one of the greatest moments in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

Articles You May Like

Prince Harry in surprise return to UK for court case
What a young woman on Moscow’s most wanted list thinks of Putin and his war in Ukraine
Sam Bankman-Fried paid over $40 million to bribe at least one official in China, DOJ alleges in new indictment
Lyft CEO and president to step down, former Amazon exec David Risher named as replacement
Major incident declared after oil leak from large onshore field in Dorset