Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise, but there is a "Wow" factor these days to see Dale Jarrett's name in 10th place in NASCAR's Nextel Cup standings.
Jarrett, the 1999 series champion, has quietly had a solid season, carrying on the comeback that began in the second half of 2004.
The previous year, Jarrett won the second race of the season at Rockingham -- his 31st victory -- and never had another top five the rest of the year. He finished 26th in the standings -- his first time out of the top 10 since finishing 13th in 1995.
Last year began with more of the same, but the No. 88 Robert Yates Racing team turned things around the second half of the season, running off a string of four straight top-10 finishes late in the year. Jarrett was just 48 points short of making the cutoff for the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup championship and wound up 15th in the standings.
This year began for the 48-year-old second-generation NASCAR star with a Daytona 500 pole -- his first in four years -- and has gone on to include three top fives and five top 10s. What is more important, Jarrett has been running at the end of each of the 19 races and has failed to complete just 11 laps in 2005.
Jarrett isn't really impressed with his performance, though.
"The season has been, I would call it average at best," he said. "We haven't, obviously, performed the way that we would like. If we had, then we would be further up into the top 10, but we've had good weekends and then a lot of what I call average weekends.
"We find ourselves racing from 12th to 16th a lot and getting a lot of finishes in there, and I think what's been the key so far is that we have finished. We haven't had a lot of mechanical problems, or getting involved in accidents, so we've made the most of what we've done so far. We realize in these next seven races that we need to step our program up."
Jarrett heads into today's race at Pocono, where he finished 13th in June, trailing series leader Jimmie Johnson by 418 points. That means there is still plenty of work to do until the lineup for the 10-race Chase is set with the top 10 drivers and any others within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race -- the Sept. 10 event at Richmond.
"We've worked extremely hard to try to make ourselves better and I think we're learning some things, but it's been a slow process for us and one we have to be really careful with," Jarrett said.
"As much as we would like to make wholesale changes, as far as our setups go, to see what may work, we can't really do that within the races. We're just kind of inching our way there, and I think everything is still wide open."
Jarrett pointed out that it's still too close to call, as far as the Chase is concerned, with only 93 points separating him from fifth-place Kurt Busch and only 120 from 15th-place Jeff Gordon.
"It's going to be a wild seven weeks," Jarrett said.
B. Labonte Remains Hopeful
Bobby Labonte could hardly be having a much worse season.
The 2000 Cup champion has only two top fives and four top 10s in 19 starts in 2005. Both two of those top fives -- second at Charlotte in May and third last Sunday in New Hampshire -- have come in his past eight races. But they have been sandwiched around a series of finishes between 13th and 38th, leaving Labonte languishing 23rd in the points race.
"We had a good run last week, and we just need to keep that momentum going," said Labonte, whose Joe Gibbs Racing teammate -- Tony Stewart -- has won three of the last four races and is third in the standings. "The guys have been working hard all year and we've had some things happen to us, but everyone has kept plugging along. That's all you can do. We're just taking it week by week."
Stat of the Week
Jimmie Johnson is making it tough on the drivers trying to work their way into the Chase. The series leader is the only driver that has ranked in the top 10 in the points after every race in 2005. He has ranked among the top 10 since Atlanta in March 2004, 52 straight races -- by far the longest current streak.