Dale Jarrett wrapped up his first Winston Cup championship on a day when rookie Tony Stewart won his second straight race.
"Fantastic!" Jarrett yelled after emerging from his No. 88 Ford. "I've just got to thank God for the talent on this race team and putting me here with such great people."
Jarrett came into today's inaugural Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway needing to finish eighth or better to close out runner-up Bobby Labonte in the championship chase.
He stayed in the top 10 throughout the 267-lap race and finished fifth. He goes into the season finale next week in Atlanta 211 points ahead of Labonte, with a maximum of 185 remaining.
"He did exactly what he had to do and he did it with class," Stewart said of Jarrett. "He's a great person. You can learn a lot from somebody like that."
Jarrett's consistent performance this season--4 victories, 23 top fives and 28 top 10s in 33 starts--gave Robert Yates his first title since he became a car owner in 1989. Jarrett led in points from the 11th race, May 11 in Richmond. "We were running well, we were consistent and we weren't having any problems," Jarrett said. "That's when I knew we were kind of in control of our own destiny and if we didn't mess up and do crazy things that this could happen."
The 43-year-old Jarrett and his father, Ned, who won two series championships, join Lee and Richard Petty as the only father-son combinations to win NASCAR titles. The younger Jarrett, who was considered a journeyman early in his career, blossomed into a star when he moved into the No. 88 car in 1996. He had finished third, second and third the last three seasons.
Stewart and Labonte, teammates on Joe Gibbs Racing, exchanged the lead several times in the late going. Labonte had dominated most of the way, leading four times for 174 laps. Stewart, who led four times for 43 laps, is the first NASCAR driver to win three races his rookie season, breaking the mark of two set by the late Davey Allison in 1987.
The 28-year-old driver took the lead from Labonte on a pit stop on Lap 187 during the only caution of the 400-mile race, which came after Ricky Rudd blew his engine. Labonte wouldn't let his teammate get away, passing him for the lead on Lap 200 in the battle of Pontiacs. But Stewart regained the top spot with a pass on Lap 229.
The race then came down to the last pit stops, with Labonte stopping for a splash of gas and two tires on Lap 244 and Stewart doing the same four laps later.
As Stewart raced off pit lane and back onto the 1 1/2-mile oval near the exit of Turn 2, he came out alongside Labonte. The two ran side-by-side for a few agonizing moments. Then Stewart's car slid up the track and bumped his teammate, who momentarily let up and then slipped behind.
"I apologize to Bobby Labonte," Stewart said. "I made a rookie mistake and drove into him. I just went in there too hard and couldn't hold my line. But I was trying to win the race."
Labonte, whose hopes of catching Jarrett in the point standings disappeared after that pass, accepted the apology. "I don't think it mattered," he said. "I wouldn't have beat him anyway. I couldn't figure out my tires today. That was my fault."
Stewart moved in front for the final time on Lap 258. He took the lead when Mark Martin made his final stop and easily pulled away. He won by 5.289 seconds, nearly a full straightaway. With only five laps under caution, Stewart's average speed was 140.335 mph. He won $278,265.
Jeff Burton finished third, followed by Martin, Jarrett, Mike Skinner and Kyle Petty, the only other drivers on the lead lap at the end.