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Forty-eight hours before the start of Sunday's Atlanta Journal 500, the final NASCAR Winston Cup race of the year, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, one of whom would become the 1989 points champion, were dragged into a press conference. Well, Earnhardt was dragged; Martin came dutifully, and you would have had a tough time keeping Wallace away. Earnhardt, a three-time champion, was an old hand at such gatherings. His mood was as good as could be expected, considering that four races earlier he had been leading the competition by 75 points. Wallace now led Earnhardt by 79 points and Martin by 78, and he merely needed to finish 18th or better to clinch the title.
"It doesn't take much strategy to figure out what I have to do," said Earnhardt. He would run hard and hope.
"In other championships there's been a lot of mouthin' before the last race," said Wallace, "but all you're going to see here is good racing."
And Martin said. "If I was a race fan, those are the guys I would be watching."
Earnhardt, whose souvenir T-shirts proclaiming him THE INTIMIDATOR were selling by the hundreds outside the gates, proceeded to overpower the field in his black Chevy, leading 294 of 328 laps and finishing 25.71 seconds ahead of second-place Geoff Bodine on the 1.522-mile oval. "I didn't give the race car a rest all day," Earnhardt said. Martin's Ford went out in a ball of flame when the engine blew on Lap 225. Wallace almost gave the points championship to Earnhardt in the pits because of tire and wheel trouble, but he hung on to his swivel-hipping Pontiac to finish 15th and win the title—with a $1 million bonus from RJR Nabisco—by 12 points, 4,176-4,164, over Earnhardt.
Wallace seemed to have the championship sewn up at the season's penultimate race, at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 5. However, he was taken out by a back marker's mistake while leading and wound up 16th. Earnhardt, who had suffered crashes and mechanical problems in the three previous races, finished sixth and gained enough on Wallace to set up Sunday's showdown. Martin, who was third at Phoenix, had unobtrusively come into contention with consistently high finishes.
Though Wallace had vowed to go for the lead rather than play it safe at Atlanta, Earnhardt's car was running perfectly and no one could stay with him in the early going. On Lap 91, Wallace came into the third turn and felt a vibration. Believing that a tire was going flat, he swerved into the pits. He rejoined the race in 33rd place, two laps down. The tire had some rubber buildup, which made it unbalanced, but it wasn't flat. "I was just trying to play it cautious," said Wallace afterward.
He came out on the track one car behind Earnhardt, and for a couple of hundred miles it was a great show, as Wallace vainly tried to unlap himself. Whenever caution periods were called, the two cars would pull abreast on the back straight and, according to Wallace, the two drivers would "smile like crazy at each other."
What they did not know was that Grant Adcox would die of injuries suffered in a crash that brought out one of the six yellow flags. Adcox, 39, hit the wall in the first turn on Lap 202. He was taken by helicopter to Georgia Baptist Medical Center, where he died of head and chest injuries.
With 80 miles to go, Wallace had worked his way back to 15th by hanging on to his remaining rival, and the championship was his to lose. Then Wallace began to feel the left side of his car vibrating. He suspected loose lug nuts, but when he stopped to change his right-side tires on a scheduled pit stop, impatience led him to forgo checking the left-side nuts. "When I hit the back straight, I thought, Man, I just made the biggest mistake of my life," he said later.