DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Dale Jarrett lost the mustache. That was the easy part.
Getting rid of the baggage took a much more concentrated effort.
The driver with the All-American looks and 16 years' experience in NASCAR's top series, needed the 1999 Winston Cup title to finally quiet the whispers that had dogged him throughout his career.
With the championship behind him, Jarrett enters the Daytona 500 no longer considered the guy good enough to be a factor but not quite good enough to live up to the accomplishments of his father, Ned.
Gary Nelson (center), Winston Cup Series director, surveys the damage to the catch fence Friday at Daytona International Speedway after the truck crash. (AP Photo)
Back in the 1960s, it was Ned Jarrett who helped set the standard for the Winston Cup series, winning two points titles and starting one of a handful of family legacies the sport has been built on. Dale was 8, barely old enough to remember, when his father won his second title in 1965.
Today, Ned Jarrett insists that any comparison with his son is unfair. The father also believes that what he accomplished in a less-competitive era of racing pales to what the son has done, even before the title.
But was there a burden lifted when Dale crossed the finish line at the final race in Atlanta last year to cap a 15-year quest?
''It lends a certain amount of credibility that you don't have without it, no matter what else you do,'' Ned Jarrett said of the title. ''It doesn't mean he's a better driver. It means he's a good driver and among the best. I think that might help one day. When they start looking at candidates for the Hall of Fame, I think you've got to look at a guy like that.''
No doubt, they already were looking.
With or without a championship, it's impossible to ignore a driver with two Daytona 500 victories, three finishes in the top-three in points and, of course, the name recognition that only success and family ties can produce.
''He's the kind of guy you root for,'' said Dale Jarrett's new teammate, Ricky Rudd. ''He's a class act, and it's not just on the racetrack. It's off the racetrack as well.''
The 43-year-old Jarrett has always provided a comfortable middle ground for racing fans unable to console themselves with Dale Earnhardt's Intimidator persona or the squeaky clean goodness of Jeff Gordon.
Jarrett is the one who understands the corporate image his sport has assumed, but he has been around long enough to recognize that true passion is what made stock car racing great to begin with.
Contrast, for instance, the pictures of him surrounded by his family after a victory in Daytona last July against his televised shouting match with Gordon a week later after Gordon hit him in Loudon, N.H.
Not too naughty. Not too nice.
''I'm a real person,'' Jarrett said. ''I don't regret the actions. Fans appreciate that honesty.''
So do his fellow drivers. There are no awkward pauses or rolls of the eye when most of these drivers answer questions about Jarrett.
''He's as good a guy as there is out there,'' Sterling Marlin said.
''I was real proud of him,'' Rusty Wallace said. ''He's a class guy, a good friend of mine. And also, it feels good that all these guys over 40 are still putting numbers on the board.''
Now that he's got a title, the big goal is to prove it wasn't a fluke. Not that too many people were claiming that to begin with. In 34 races last season, Jarrett failed to finish just once and finished out of the top 10 only four times.
Consistency like that wins championships. So does the leadership the North Carolina native provides -- a dose of confidence mixed with genuine Southern humility that any team could rally behind.
''People ask me if I've become a better driver,'' Jarrett said. ''I feel that with more experience, I've become a better driver. But along with that, my equipment got better. It's amazing how much of a better driver you become when you have the equipment and the people around you.''
The formula seems to be holding steady this year.
The Robert Yates Racing team Fords swept the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500. Jarrett will start from the pole, right next to Rudd.
So, as usual, Jarrett will be at the front of a big race with a strong car. The only discernible difference on Sunday will be in his physical appearance.
In the offseason, he decided to experiment by shaving off his trademark black mustache, speckled with gray.
Everybody wants to know what the decision symbolized -- a fresh start, or maybe an attempt to take an incognito approach into the season of his defense?
''He shaved it around Christmastime and he wasn't sure if he was going to keep it like that,'' Ned Jarrett said. ''Then his sister-in-law saw him and said, 'Gosh, you look 20 years younger.' That pretty much did it.''
The championship probably made him feel 20 years younger, too.
End Adv for Feb. 19-20
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