For much of the
29-race NASCAR Winston Cup season, Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin ran so close
that by the time they reached Atlanta Motor Speedway for the final race, on
Sunday, they were separated by only six points—4,260 for Earnhardt to Martin's
4,254. The spread between first and second at the payoff window would be
considerably wider, however, as the point fund offered $1 million to the
champion but a mere $330,000 to the runner-up. So there were 670,000 reasons
why each driver wanted to leave the other as far behind as possible.
Oh yes, there was
one more reason, a big one. Behind the scenes, executives from Ford and
Chevrolet were turning up the heat under the pressure cooker that Earnhardt and
Martin were already sitting in. The Manufacturers Championship, led by Chevy
188-185, would also be on the line, and Earnhardt's big black Chevy Lumina and
Martin's wine-colored Ford Thunderbird were the flagships of each fleet. With
cars sitting unsold in showrooms in a soft economy and each manufacturer
desperate to have something to shout about, the stakes of that subcontest
dwarfed those of the drivers' championship—in terms of special race equipment
and of other favors to be bestowed by the grateful automaker.
Other than heavy
right feet, Earnhardt and Martin don't have a lot in common once they climb
through the window of their race cars. Martin got where he was on cool
consistency: 16 top-five finishes, including three victories. Earnhardt shoved,
battered and blasted to the top, mixing nine wins with a variety of setbacks,
often of the metal-crunching variety. But it had been a record-setting season
for Earnhardt even before Sunday's race. His earnings of some $1.5 million,
plus the $175,000 he collected for winning the three-event International Race
of Champions series and $200,000 more for winning The Winston (a
nonchampionship sprint race), made him the biggest money winner in the history
of motor racing, with career purses totaling more than $11 million.
But he's the same
old Dale, a fellow who didn't come by his nickname of Iron-head by accident. It
began some 23 years ago, when he was 15 and defied his daddy, Ralph, a star of
NASCAR's minor leagues, by dropping out of high school and taking up the racing
trade. And even now, three NASCAR championships later, he holds to his
see me at home on the farm," Earnhardt says. "I guarantee you I don't
look like no 11-millionaire. I got a '72 dump truck, rusty ol' claptrap thing,
I drive it setting way up there with a big old gearshift sticking up by my ear.
I come tearing around a turn over a hill, it's blowing smoke, I'm sideways,
sticks and limbs are hanging out the side and branches are flying out the back,
and you better get out of the way because that'll be me, and I don't back off
for no one."
Martin, 31, may
come from Batesville, Ark., but he has roots set deep in Thunder Road. He too
began racing as a teenager, and won the American Speed Association championship
in 1978, '79 and '80. In 1981, he started competing in NASCAR races as a
confident 22-year-old. He left a year later, a seriously humbled
23-year-old—"emotionally, physically and financially broke," he says.
But in 1988, after some additional seasoning on the ASA circuit and a year
running in NASCAR's Grand National series, Martin was back and running Winston
Cup races in the Fords owned by Jack Roush. Last season he finished third in
points. This year he led the point race until Earnhardt steamed into first by
winning at Phoenix in the next-to-last race of the season.
advantage at Atlanta was unquestionably Earnhardt's. He had won two of the
three most recent races held on Atlanta's high-banked, 1.522-mile oval, while
Martin had finished fifth, 30th and 38th. More significant, the Roush team
seemed to be panicking. A week before the showdown, the team had gone to
Atlanta for a test session in which Martin drove six different Fords. The
fastest of the bunch was a loaner provided by rival driver Davey Allison. Roush
borrowed Allison's car, repainted it in his own colors, and entered it for
Atlanta. The move was a stunner, seen by many as an act of desperation.
Earnhardt and his
team, owned and led by Richard Childress, also tested at Atlanta. They ran
about 20 hot laps, then threw a cover over the car and said they were ready for
the race. Earnhardt went deer hunting, leaving Martin to scramble and fret.
champion Rusty Wallace took the pole position in qualifying, at 175.222 mph,
with Earnhardt sixth and Martin 11th. The Earnhardt and Martin teams were
garaged door-to-door at Atlanta, but though the crews worked in close
proximity, the mechanics kept their noses buried in their own cars, doing their
best to hide their speed secrets. During Saturday's final practice session,
different combinations of springs went on and off Martin's car as the team
continued its nervous search for better handling and more speed. By the end of
the final practice session matters had scripted themselves into a fitting final
drama: Earnhardt was fastest, at 173.060 mph, Martin second-fastest—and much
relieved—at 172.740 mph.
At the start,
Allison scooted out front from his second-row starting position, causing
comment that maybe Roush had chosen the wrong car. But then Wallace moved into
the lead, until Lap 44, when Earnhardt slid by. Meanwhile, Martin could only
tag along behind. It would be the story of his day. As Earnhardt ran with the
leaders—Geoff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott and finally Morgan
Shepherd—Martin had all he could do to keep them in sight, twice sputtering on
pit road because of fuel-feed problems, once stalling briefly on the track. All
the while, he and his crew wrestled with different tires and suspension
settings in an attempt to get the unfamiliar car to handle better.