Unless he wins nine of the last 14 races, Dale Jarrett probably won't be considered as successful as Jeff Gordon was a season ago.
Last year, Gordon tied Richard Petty's series record by winning 13 times, and although Jarrett figures to fall short of that, his point total is higher than Gordon's at this time a year ago. Jarrett's 20-race total of 3,199 points is 117 more than Gordon had at this time in 1998.
"I think they've got things clicking better than we had last year," Gordon said. "It seems like they got it together sooner."
They certainly had everything in order last Saturday, when Jarrett led 116 of 160 laps while winning the Brickyard 400. Jarrett increased his lead in the standings to 274 points over Mark Martin.
Gordon, trying to become only the second driver to win three straight titles, is 507 points behind in sixth place as he gets ready for the Frontier at the Glen on Sunday. He has taken a realistic approach to the balance of the season.
"We're not even thinking about him," Gordon said of Jarrett. "We're just trying to win races."
Tied with Jarrett and Jeff Burton for the series lead with four victories this year, Gordon still has a good chance to be the top winner on the circuit for a record-breaking fifth straight season. He's trying for his third straight victory on the 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International track and fifth in a row on NASCAR's two road courses.
But Gordon can't count on victories to get him back in the race--unless Jarrett has an unexpected rash of low finishes.
"They were just kind of biding their time early in the season getting those top fives, and then when it all started to click, they started winning races," Gordon said. "He's on a pretty good roll right now."
Jarrett agrees but remains wary of possible pitfalls.
"I don't want anybody to shake me to wake me up," he said. "It's as good as it can get right now."
With 11 top five finishes in his last 12 starts and 16 overall, Jarrett has been in position to win nearly every race.
Although he doesn't think he'll be able to match Gordon's 1998 run that tied Petty's 23-year-old record for most victories in a season, Jarrett plans to try.
"I hope that maybe we'll win the rest of them," he said. "We've had the kind of breaks that we saw those guys get through the  season."
In 1998, Gordon failed to finish just two of 33 races, and he beat Martin--who had some late-season difficulties--by a staggering 374 points. Gordon was only 72 ahead points ahead of Martin last year when the cars came to New York's Finger Lakes.
But Gordon has been off the track at the end five times this year; Jarrett has been just once. And Jarrett also has experienced far fewer difficulties than Martin and third-place driver Bobby Labonte.
"We've had good racing luck," said Jarrett, who hasn't finished out of the top 10 in five months.
"They know how to win a championship," Gordon said. "They've been right there, second or third many times."
Jarrett has been no worse than third in points at season's end in each of the last three seasons. In 1997, he lost to Gordon by 14 points, the second slimmest margin in series history.
CAPTION: In his No. 88 Ford, Dale Jarrett, below, is racing toward NASCAR Winston Cup points championship, but the series record of 13 wins in a season shared by Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon seems out of reach.