Ned Jarrett was a racing legend by any name

Ned Jarrett poses in the early days of Ned Jarrett poses in the early days of NASCAR, at a time when racing was simply considered dangerous by its very nature. That's one of the reasons he got out. Photo Credit: Wheelbase Media

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Ned Jarrett always knew how to race, even if he wasn't always known as Ned Jarrett on the starting grid.

From the time he squeezed his skinny frame into that first hopped-up race car (and finished second), to the night he took home his first checkered flag (and wondered if dad was watching), he proved he could burn up the North Carolina clay.

From Charlotte to Newton, on dirt tracks, short tracks, long ones and tight ones, Jarrett quickly made a name for himself . . . despite the fact he was driving under an alias.

"Son," Homer Jarrett told Ned one night in Hickory, with the lights still blazing and tires melting, "if you're going to drive, you might as well get credit for it."

And Ned Jarrett, real name and all, eventually did.

What began on small tracks nestled in between the lush pine hills and the numerous lakes of North Carolina would take Jarrett all the way to Daytona, then into every living room in America.

He got credit for so many things so fast. Then, mysteriously, he walked away. A racing world wondered why. A man committed more to his family than four tires didn't give it a second thought.

"Gonna pursue other interests," Jarrett said in 1966, barely 34 years old, barely into a NASCAR career that had already included two Winston Cup Series titles (now Sprint Cup) and, remarkably, 50 wins.

And pursue he would, just the same way he hunted down the competition on the track. Just the same way he had shucked and jived his way into the sport back when he could barely see over the steering wheel, but couldn't let go.

Jarrett had been born to run, even if his motor revved at a different speed, even if some didn't mean for it to rev at all.

From Newton, N.C., Jarrett was one of four children born to a mother who looked out for her family and a father who worked in the lumber yards.

Ned learned about lumber, but he loved cars.

He was hooked, from that first Sunday morning when his father let nine-year-old Ned drive the family car to church, to the weekend nights he worked in the Hickory garages as a teenager taking apart engines for race teams at the speedway.

Ned drove in his first race in 1952, at just 20, steering a Sportsman Ford to a 10th-place finish. When his parents found out, his driving days were over, but not for long.

When driver John Lentz was forced to sit out sick one night, Jarrett took over and finished second. So his parents wouldn't find out, Jarred used Lentz's name. A first-place finish, then another, and another and his father, who found out anyway, gave in.

"Daddy knew a thing or two," Ned later said.

And so did Ned. With a pleasant disposition and a smooth style, he quickly dominated a racing league that rarely offered instant success. He came in second driving in the Sportsman series (now the Nationwide Series) in 1956, then won the series a year later. Three seasons later, he had purchased a Junior Johnson Ford for $2,000, waited to write the check until the bank closed, then went out and won two races to cover the cost of the car before the bank opened on Monday.

By 1960, he had won five races and earned a reputation for hard driving but easy living, including one brisk February day at Daytona, Fla., when he began the Daytona 500 in the 54th spot and finished sixth, one of the first drivers to master the art of "drafting" on super speedways.

A season later, Jarrett had perfected it, driving his way to the Grand National title over Rex White and finishing first just once but among the top-five drivers in 22 races. It would be a standard only typical of a Jarrett car.

In 1964, joined with team owner Bobby Long, he won 15 times but lost the title to Richard Petty. A year later, he won 13 more races and another title. In 1966, he was in the run for another title when Ford announced it was pulling out of NASCAR.

Jarrett said he would, too.

The news stunned the racing world but not those who really knew Jarrett. Despite being one of the only NASCAR champions (past or present) to leave while at the top of his profession, he had a family of five to look after. Eventually, business ventures followed, so would the recognition as one of NASCAR's 50 all-time greatest drivers and a broadcasting career with ESPN and CBS where Jarrett's sharp wit helped turn NASCAR into a prime-time event.

"I want the viewers to see the drivers as people," Jarrett said at the time, "and develop an understanding of the racer's love of (NASCAR)."

His own love would grow leaps and bounds from the booth. Ironically, one of his greatest moments on the track came nearly 30 years after leaving it when son, Dale, won the Daytona 500 with Ned calling the race on national TV.

Six years later, when the youngest Jarrett won the Winston Cup title, it would be just the second father-son duo to win a championship at stock car racing's highest level. It was a perfect moment of synthesis for two drivers who never intended to see the green flag.

"He just wasn't the type that I thought was going to get into racing," Ned Jarrett said.

Dale, too, had got his start in racing by working at Hickory Speedway, a track his father owned then. However, at 18, Dale seemed more interested in golf.

At the very least, father Ned had instilled that same down-home ethic in his son that he had once been so proud of in himself. Unlike other high-profile NASCAR racers, Dale didn't move to exclusive lakefront communities near Charlotte, N.C., deciding, instead, to stay in Hickory, a town of 35,000.

And back in Hickory, Ned was inducted into the Hickory Metro Sports Hall of Fame . . . his 10th hall of fame at the time.

"Ned's one of NASCAR's leading ambassadors," driver Bill Elliott said at the NASCAR induction several years ago.

And then came the induction as member of the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, along with Bobby Allison, Lee Petty, Bud Moore and David Pearson.

Somewhere, John Lentz was likely smiling.

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