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August 13. 2013 10:41PM

Jarrett sees Chase for the Championship heating up

DETROIT — ESPN racing analyst Dale Jarrett expects it to be the best Chase for the Championship yet.

And he thinks the action Sunday at Michigan International Speedway will set the tone for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title tilt to come.

Jarrett, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and 1999 Cup champ, sees this weekend’s Pure Michigan 400 as a must-win, pressure-cooker situation for drivers vying for spots in the field of 12 to contest the 10-race Chase starting Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway.

“We are seeing a tremendous battle for position,” said Jarrett, 56, who retired from racing in 2008 and joined ESPN full-time. “Certainly Jimmie Johnson is favored to win the championship, but he’s no sure thing. Clint Bowyer is right there, and so, too, are Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.

“It’s the most competitive season in years, and MIS is going to answer a lot of questions about who’ll line up in the Chase. If you can do well at Michigan, you’ll have a leg up in the race to make it.”

Jarrett, whose father, Ned, won NASCAR titles in 1961 and 1965 and later became a racing commentator on TV, loved running at MIS, where he captured his first Cup event in 1991, winning the Champion Spark Plug 400. Jarrett himself drove to victory lane at MIS in 1996, 1998 and 2002.

He talked about the track, the Chase and several other racing and sports-related topics heading to the Irish Hills.

“I always said Michigan was my favorite race track,” he said. “I had success there, and it always lent itself to great competition. MIS is wide, fast, and drivers have to work hard for the win. It will be no different on Sunday. Michigan is there for the taking, and whoever wins could well set up his chances to make the Chase.”

When Jarrett retired in 2008, he had accumulated 32 career Cup victories and 16 poles. He also had won the Brickyard 400 in 1996 and 1999. Did he hang up the helmet too early?

“Not really,” said Jarrett, who will work ESPN’s telecast from MIS with Allen Bestwick and Andy Petree. “Opportunities present themselves for a reason. It was a seamless transition from driver to analyst. It’s been a terrific deal.”

Of course, Jarrett does miss life behind the wheel.

“I exceeded my dreams and aspirations as a driver,” said Jarrett, whose first race was at historic Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, which was owned by his father. “I miss the thrill of racing, but I’m proud of what I was able to achieve. I owe much of that success to my mother and father.”

Jarrett is amazed by just how well-prepared drivers are in this modern era of racing.

“They are definitely athletes,” Jarrett said. “They spend a lot of time on their physical conditioning — well, most, anyway. I guess if there are millions of dollars out there to win, you’d better be prepared.”

Asked about Danica Patrick and her rookie year in Sprint Cup, Jarrett said the jury is out.

“She is still a work in progress,” Jarrett said. “I think she is getting more comfortable with the car. But giving her cars she can be more aggressive in is still a question. I think ever winning a championship in NASCAR is a tall order for Danica, but I can see her having a nice career and keeping her job.”

Regarding a job, Jarrett may be looking for one himself after the 2014 season, when NBC Sports will replace ESPN as a NASCAR broadcaster. What might he do?

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I might just retire again and enjoy life. What I can say is that as a TV racing analyst, I’ve made some dear friends and enjoyed every minute of it. I can’t complain one bit.”

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