As Dale Jarrett walks through the Winston Cup garage in Darlington, S.C., his head is high and his step has a bounce in it.
A million dollars may not be what it used to be in pro sports, but the prospect of winning that amount of money tomorrow in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 is enough to make Jarrett strut.
"Anytime you're enjoying what you're doing and having success at it, it's going to show in your confidence," Jarrett said, a little sheepishly. "I'm enjoying this time. I'm on top of the world right now -- and I'm very appreciative to the people who have put me in this position. I'm probably happier for my team than I am for myself."
But there is no denying he feels particularly good as he goes for the elusive Million Dollar Bonus.
The bonus goes to the Winston Cup driver who, in the same season, can win three of the Winston Cup Series Big 4 races -- the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the Winston Select 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington International Raceway.
When Bill Elliott won the Winston Million in 1985, the first year it was offered, everyone knew it was special.
No one knew just how special.
Eleven years later, he is still the only one to have won it.
"I hope Dale wins it," said Elliott. "Really, I'm surprised that I'm still the only one. This many years. I've looked back through the record books, it seems like someone would win three of those four races in the same season about every seven years. So it's overdue.
"Still, it's awful hard. You have to have the car, but even after you have the equipment, you have to have luck and then fate has to be on your side, too."
When Elliott won the million, it was a turning point for the sport. It created new interest beyond stock-car racing's southern roots. Elliott was a Sports Illustrated cover boy. Now, Winston Cup racing is the fastest-growing sport in the country, with a 60 percent growth rate -- based on attendance figures -- since 1990.
But with the coming of $100 million dollar salaries to other pro sports, a million doesn't sound like much.
"Almost embarrassing, isn't it?" said Elliott. But a million dollars still isn't chump change. And most people can still relate to a million dollars and the age-old dream of becoming a "millionaire."
"A million is still a big deal to me," said Jarrett. "When I think back to my first race, about 19 years ago, I think I won $25. To me, it's still pretty incredible that I can win a million dollars. And what we will have had to do to win it is pretty incredible. It's hard enough to win three races in a year [before this year, Jarrett had never won more than one], let alone three specific races in a year."
So far this season, Jarrett has been good and lucky. He has four victories -- in the GM Goodwrench 400 at Michigan, the Brickyard 400, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Daytona 500. As fate would have it, in the Winston Select 500 at Talladega he was two-tenths of a second slower than Sterling Marlin, or Jarrett already would have pocketed the million.
"To me, not winning at Talladega is not a bad omen," Jarrett said. "I'm not superstitious. Sometimes I wish I was, so I'd have something to lean on. But the way I look at it is that it wasn't meant to be then, because it wouldn't have been as big a deal as this is going to be if we win Darlington."
Over the last 11 years, Darrell Waltrip (1989), Davey Allison (1992) and Dale Earnhardt (1993) have gone into Darlington with a chance to claim the prize. None of them were able to do it.
"The million is a nice big carrot to chase," said Robert Yates, the man who owns Jarrett's Ford and also the man who owned Allison's in his bid in 1992. "It makes it interesting and exciting and ads to the heart rate.
"I've never had high blood pressure, but that day in 1992, when Davey was running for the million, that morning I had to go to the track infirmary and my blood pressure was sky high. I'm sure I'm going to have to watch it again this time.
"But I don't think it's the money that's so important in this. I think it's the striving for it that makes us a better team. And it makes the competition better, too, because I think the competition is racing about as hard to keep us from getting it."
At 39, Jarrett is a mature driver who didn't get his first Winston Cup win until five years ago. He is popular among the other drivers and teams, but until this season, his best by far, he has had to endure a lot of criticism.
The critics said he jerked the steering wheel, couldn't qualify, couldn't run a road course. They also thought he made a bad decision when he asked out of his long-term contract with Joe Gibbs Racing to join the Yates team last season, as a replacement for the injured Ernie Irvan, without a guarantee of future employment.
Obviously, when Yates added a second team for Jarrett this season, things worked out. And with the winning, the critics have disappeared.
"I don't hear I can't drive as much as I used to," said Jarrett. "I guess I've been second-guessed about 100,000 times, but I've never paid much attention to outside critics. I've always been something of a risk-taker. That's just me."
And when it comes to pressure situations, well, Jarrett likes them.
"Even growing up, I always wanted to be the leader, the guy out front, the star," he said boldly, letting his confidence show.
"As for the million, I don't feel pressure to win it. I know the opportunity may never come along again and, from that aspect there's pressure to win. But we'd be going out with the idea of winning, anyway, and I think our chances of winning are pretty good."
(Qualifying results, 12C)
Pub Date: 8/31/96