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Yates runs into test of character

Apparently, there is bad luck, and then there is Robert Yates Racing luck. "Bad" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Once one of the most feared teams in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, the Yates outfit hits the track today for pole-qualifying for the Pepsi 400 not among the series leaders in any significant category _ except broken hearts.

Still scarred by the horrifying crashes of drivers Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan, the team is wrestling to adjust to its new driver, Dale Jarrett, while containing its emotions for Yates crew chief Larry McReynolds, who was told last week that his cancer-stricken mother has weeks, at most, to live.

"It's just really hard," McReynolds said.

With Saturday's race at Daytona International Speedway marking the halfway point in the 31-race season, the Yates team isn't totally sunk. But for a crowd that historically has run up front as easily as it changes right front tires, it seems like it.

After 14 races in his one-season deal to drive the No.

28 Ford Thunderbird, Jarrett is 14th in the standings. Last year at this time, Irvan had the car in first, 78 points ahead of eventual series champion Dale Earnhardt.

After Martinsville, in late April, Jarrett was seventh in the standings. Since then, he has had a 19th at Talladega, a 32nd at Charlotte, a 40th at Dover and a 38th at Pocono before rebounding with a season-high sixth two weeks ago at Michigan.

Making matters worse for Jarrett is the fact that the ride he left, Joe Gibbs Racing, is having its best run ever. Gibbs driver Bobby Labonte is sixth in the series standings with two victories.

As the driver, Jarrett has naturally absorbed much of the fallout from the team's poor results. NASCAR fans are notoriously intense _ both in their loyalties and their criticism.

"Fans, along with the race team and myself, expected the race team to do more," he said. "Certainly, we've lost some fans, and I'm sure there are people out there that think Dale Jarrett can't drive. But it's a matter that I'm not concerned about what people are saying. I know what's gone on, and I know I can drive the cars and we have to go on and do the best we can do and try to win those fans back."

Theories abound about the sources of their problems. Some say Jarrett and the Yates crew have deep differences about how the car should be set up. The Yates team has its system, backed up by years of success with Allison and Irvan. Jarrett has his way, which suits his driving style, which won the 1993 Daytona 500.

Others say Irvan, who gives regular input regarding the team's race strategy, has created a too-many-chefs-in-the-kitchen situation.

Neither Jarrett nor McReynolds would pin their difficulties on one thing, saying the problem is more a combination of having just one tire company this year (Hoosier competed with Goodyear last season), the presence of the highly successful Chevy Monte Carlo (which has won 11 of 14 races), and just plain rotten luck.

"Even if Ernie Irvan was driving this car this year," McReynolds said, "things that worked with him the last time we were at a particular racetrack may not exactly work now if he was still driving the car."

If there is an upside to their disenchanting situation, it's that perhaps no team in the series today has had as much experience dealing with adversity. McReynolds said he is imitating the way Allison handled the Yates team's earlier problems.

"He had a way of being determined and of saying: "Look, I have a job to do and I'm still going to do it,"' McReynolds said.

That job is trained this week on Daytona, where Jarrett put the Yates car on the pole in February for the Daytona 500. They will unload a different car this time, however _ one they used at this race a year ago, when Irvan finished second to Jimmy Spencer.

"It's probably not a car, aerodynamicwise, that's going to allow us to sit on the pole," Jarrett said. "We should be up front somewhere. But it's a better-driving car I think we have a good chance of winning."

Whether it's Daytona or some other track, this Yates group is challenging itself to chase away the dark clouds. The team has done it before and figures it can do it again.

"There's a lot of people I want to get this program turned around for, but I really want to get it turned around for Dale Jarrett, because I want to see him leave here a winner," McReynolds said. "And when I see him next year, two years, three years from now walking through the garage area, I want to be able to look at him and grin and say: "We kicked their butt at the end of 1995, didn't we?' "