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 starts 37th today in his final points race, his last time behind the wheel except for NASCAR's All-Star race in May.
"He has had a heck of a career, and I have had a blast racing with him," four-time Cup series champion Jeff Gordon said 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."
Jarrett, 51, earned that reputation through 667 starts and 32 wins — three of them Daytona 500 victories and one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — one championship and more than $59-million earned. Along the way he became known as a tough but classy and clean racer and an 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," Greg Biffle said. "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 traveling the circuit with his father, two-time champ Ned Jarrett. And when Ned moved into the broadcast booth, the two 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 watched the race on television and 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 & 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 the start today as a tribute to his son's final race. Then Jarrett will follow his father 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 in July when ESPN assumes its portion of the TV package.
Jarrett has 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 to join upstart Michael Waltrip Racing and drive a Toyota.
Jarrett's final full season, 2007, suffered. Waltrip's three-car team struggled last season. Jarrett missed 12 of 36 races and had no top-10 finishes.
Waltrip will honor the commitment Jarrett made to him with tribute decals saying "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."