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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 rough-cut ways.
"You should 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.
The psychological 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.
Reigning NASCAR 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.