Had things worked out a little differently, Dale Jarrett would be perusing golf notes in preparation for a Players Championship broadcast, transferring knowledge from a PGA career that might have happened if he said “yes” to a University of South Carolina recruiting pitch.
Instead, the popular former NASCAR driver and colorful ESPN analyst is in Darlington for a week of Bojangles Southern 500 fun.
“It certainly was a difficult decision,” said Jarrett, 56.
Harder than putting at Amen Corner in Augusta, or zooming into Turn 2 at Darlington. Jarrett has done both.
Jarrett upon graduating from North Carolina’s Newton-Conover High School in 1975 pondered the choices. Four years of golf at South Carolina? Or a jump-start following Ned Jarrett into a racing career?
Jarrett’s father, Ned, parlayed success at North Carolina’s Hickory Motor Speedway into NASCAR fame.
Ned and Martha Jarrett preferred the college route for their son.
Almost 700 races, 32 Cup victories and three Daytona 500 wins later, Jarrett knows he made the correct call. The NASCAR life sprinkled with lots of golf — including a few Augusta visits — has been a blast.
“I shouldn’t say this, but I was tired of going to school,” Jarrett said by phone. “I realized if I had the school side of it to deal with, it wouldn’t allow me time to put into my racing opportunity.”
When comes right down to it, Jarrett insists there are striking similarities between the blaze and noise of good ol’ stock car racing and the hushed politeness of golf.
Patience is a double virtue.
“I know people don’t normally associate race drivers with a lot of patience, and sometimes they don’t show a lot of patience,” said Jarrett, who won three times at Darlington.
“But just like a golfer making a decision whether to let the course come to him or go for a par 5, it’s kind of the same thing from the seat of a race car. You have to be calculating and patient and not wreck the car just because it’s not handling well.
“There are other things. Even though racing is more of a team sport with all the components that go into it, once you’re strapped into the car, it’s you vs. the others. In golf, you’re out there even more so; it’s your job to get the job done even when you have your caddie out there and your clubs.”
And the playing surface.
“Like golfers go to the same courses year after year, drivers go to the same tracks,” Jarrett said. “You have to learn the tendencies and decide things like, ‘Where is best to make your move?’ ”
Jarrett attended two South Carolina football games as a boy and still follows the Gamecocks in various sports.
“I love college sports, all of it,” said Jarrett, who still lives in Conover. “College football is as good as it gets. There is literally nothing better than March Madness. I’m a huge college baseball fan for a couple reasons: I follow the University of North Carolina and they do well every year, and then South Carolina has won a couple (College World Series) championships.”
Zach Jarrett, Dale’s son, is a 6-5 senior third baseman at Hickory High School. He has signed to play at Charlotte. Zach’s grandfather Jack Spears played for 11 seasons in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization.
Jarrett has his own doubleheader this weekend. He is part of the ESPN2 coverage of tonight’s Nationwide Series race. He will stick around for the Bojangles Southern 500, a Saturday night survival test on “The Track Too Tough to Tame” for defending champion and points race leader Jimmie Johnson and other drivers.
“It’s just such a unique track,” Jarrett said. “When you see it from a blimp shot it may not look all that difficult but what the viewer doesn’t see — and what’s so obvious to the drivers — is just how narrow that racing groove really is. That’s what Darlington has always been about.”
Almost like Augusta National, in other words and another Dale Jarrett world.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff