Playing not to lose was anathema to Gordon and Evernham, who loathe the tactic of "stroking"—riding around conservatively to protect a lead. But Evernham took a deep breath in his prerace pep talk and told his team. "We've got two strikes against us, and this is the ball game. We don't need to take any wild swings. We just need to hit the ball."
There would be no home runs on this day. Jarrett, starting third, felt his Thunderbird go limp almost immediately. "It just simply wouldn't run." he said, exaggerating. In truth, it had too little power coming off the corners. Jarrett thought a piece of trash might have fouled the carburetor; Parrott thought the car was understeering. Parrott was probably right because after he made feverish adjustments the car finished second.
Martin's Thunderbird ran near the front all race and was leading when, as Martin described it, "we lost a cylinder with about 20 laps to go." At that point Bobby Labonte ran down Martin easily, took the lead with 11 laps to go and kept it to the end. Jarrett slipped past Martin with two laps left, but Martin held on for third.
After running as high as 10th, Gordon fell back to a precarious 19th after pitting for new tires with 56 laps left—10 laps earlier than expected. Severe tire wear affected most of the field on Atlanta's new surface, and the final few laps were touch-and-go for Gordon. "Even when they waved the white flag [signaling one lap left in the race], I wasn't comfortable because I was afraid a tire could blow at any moment," said Gordon, who was three laps down at the finish. "Only when I came off Turn 4 on the last lap and knew that I could get to the line even if a tire went, did I sigh in relief."
At that moment 160,000 fans—a small part of the legions that had booed Gordon thunderously all season because he had won too much (10 races) for their tastes—cheered roundly. "I think," he said, "they respect the Winston Cup champion."
Perhaps. But NASCAR fans love underdogs, even ones born overnight. So more likely they were roaring their approval of a guy who, for once, put himself in a humiliating jam, damn near choked and, in the end, didn't fold.
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