HAMPTON, Ga. -- The Winston Cup trophy, tall and glistening, sat on the ground in the garage, as public relations men led Dale Earnhardt to its side.
"A picture? With this?" Earnhardt said, looking askance at the trophy he could win for the sixth time today. "Forget it. I'm not the champion yet. That would bring nothing but bad luck."
When Rusty Wallace heard the story, a broad smile spread across his boyish face.
"Gremlins," he said, leaning back comfortably in a leather chair in his team's transport. "There are a lot of gremlins out there. You know, he's made a lot of people mad -- wrecking them here and there. If I was him, going into a championship race, I'd be looking in my mirror."
Large plantations once spread across these acres south of Atlanta. Now Atlanta Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval dominates the countryside. Today, at 12:30 p.m., when the green flag falls on the Hooters 500, all eyes will be on Earnhardt and Wallace as they play out the final act in their pursuit of the Winston Cup.
Earnhardt has the advantage here, by 126 points. It is a big enough margin that Earnhardt has only to finish 34th to capture the crown, but a lot can happen over 500 miles on a race track judged to be as slick as a greased pig.
Friday, the track was blamed for six crashes during practice. Earnhardt was one of the unfortunate. He spun into the wall and was forced to switch to a backup car.
"Maybe it opened the door a little," said Wallace. "But I'm sure his backup is nearly as good. My job is to make my car go as fast as I can and if he stuffs it -- again, I'll be sitting in front. I'm good at that."
They will start side-by-side on the 10th row, too far back to please either one. But they will pull their helmets on and crawl inside their cars -- Earnhardt into his Goodwrench Chevrolet, Wallace into his Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac.
"I'll look over at him and give him one of these," said Earnhardt, twisting his fist with his thumb up.
"I'll give him some sign," said Wallace, not saying he'd wish Earnhardt good luck. "It's the last race. I can't get all weird about it. But this is it."
But it isn't over yet. Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, said he has been in bed staring at the ceiling from 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., thinking about all the things that could go wrong today.
"I wanted us to be in the top five at the start [today]," Childress said. "I thought we would lead a couple laps, run our race and stay out of trouble. But we're starting 19th. It's a long way back. A lot of stuff can happen back there, and I have a feeling if we go out and try to take it easy, we're going to get in trouble."
Wallace says a stat sheet will reveal a driver can get through two-thirds of a race and still finish 36th or 38th. It turns out a lot of people are thinking about many different scenarios.
"Remember the headline, 'Dewey Wins,' " said one elderly fan standing near Wallace's car. "Earnhardt could be Dewey, you know."
Boston College once beat Miami on a hail Mary pass. Navy beat Army a couple of years ago.
"Every year there is some major upset in nearly every sport," said Earnhardt's publicist, Kevin Triplet. "Everyone is bagging this thing for us, and it's making me crazier than it's making Dale."
To keep up with Earnhardt yesterday, it took a quick step. He was wanted for the film "Raw Power," by newspapers from across the country, by motorsports publications, by his team for practice, by Goodyear for tire checks, by corporate sponsors to sign autographs.
All that before he climbed inside his car for a morning practice session.
Earnhardt takes it all in stride. If he wins this title, it will be No. 6, one shy of all-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty.
"I feel good about this race," Earnhardt said. "If everything works out according to plan, we'll have that sixth title, but it's not what I'll be thinking about going into the race. It's what I'll be thinking about on the last lap, if we get it. You can't afford to think about it before you get it. You just can't."
Wallace is with his car. He is under its hood, talking to engineers. There are no celebrities in his pits. He is not being asked to have his photo taken with the championship trophy. But HBO wants him in "Raw Power" with Earnhardt and Petty. The tape will be given to new subscribers as the Michael Jordan tape was given away last year.
He is much more wound up. His hands fly through the air when he tells a story about having a half-lap lead at Charlotte and losing a few years ago. It reminds him that Earnhardt can't count on anything.
"I can't afford to pay any attention to Earnhardt," he said. "He's going to be careful."
Wallace has nine wins to Earnhardt's six; he has three pole-position starts to Earnhardt's two; he has led 2,671 laps to Earnhardt's 1,473. The difference is that Wallace had five races he did not finish to Earnhardt's two.
Wallace flashes a smile and nods toward the Goodwrench truck parked next to his.
"Dale's the best driver right now," he said. "He has more experience. He scares more people than I scare. But he doesn't mess with me, and I don't mess with him. He's better than me. He has a natural ability to handle the car in tight, unnatural situations on the track.
"No question, Dale has been the most consistent, and yet, sitting here I know I shouldn't be second. I should be leading and if I somehow wind up the champion, sitting with the trophy, I'll feel we've earned it."
NOTES: The Slick 50 300 Grand National race was won by Ward Burton, who ended his GN career yesterday. Next season he will drive the Hardee's car on the Winston Cup tour. . . . Larry Pearson, 2.42 seconds behind, finished second after Michael Waltrip ran out of gas with two laps to go. . . . 64,500 fans watched, as Burton's Chevrolet averaged 109.6 mph over the 2:44.08 race. There were 19 lead changes among eight drivers and 10 caution flags for 54 laps. . . . Todd Bodine crashed his Fiddle Faddle Chevrolet. He was taken to Georgia Baptist Hospital for shoulder X-rays. Bodine is supposed to start today in the Hooters 500. But Butch Mock, who owns the Winston Cup Factory Store Ford, said Phil Parsons will be on standby in case Bodine can't go.
Hooters 500 lineup
1. Harry Gant, Chevrolet Lumina, 176.902. 2. Brett Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 175.346. 3. Rick Mast, Ford Thunderbird, 175.334. 4. Ted Musgrave, Ford Thunderbird, 174.853. 5. Jimmy Spencer, Ford Thunderbird, 174.641. 6. Bobby Hamilton, Ford Thunderbird, 174.630. 7. Ernie Irvan, Ford Thunderbird, 174.608. 8. Bill Elliott, Ford Thunderbird, 174.436. 9. Rich Bickle Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 174.369. 10. Lake Speed, Ford Thunderbird, 174.175.
11. Geoff Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 174.037. 12. Bobby Hillin Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 173.755. 13. Ricky Rudd, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.706. 14. Jimmy Horton, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.563. 15. Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.502. 16. Morgan Shepherd, Ford Thunderbird, 173.409. 17. Jimmy Hensley, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.212. 18. Dick Trickle, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.195. 19. Dale Earnhardt, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.026. 20. Rusty Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 172.845.
21. Ken Schrader, Chevrolet Lumina, 173.926. 22. Todd Bodine, Ford Thunderbird, 173.827. 23. Mike Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 173.557. 24. Loy Allen Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 172.840. 25. Rick Carelli, Ford Thunderbird, 172.715. 26. Greg Sacks, Ford Thunderbird, 172.698. 27. Derrike Cope, Ford Thunderbird, 172.655. 28. Darrell Waltrip, Chevrolet Lumina, 172.568. 29. Dale Jarrett, Chevrolet Lumina, 172.481. 30. Terry Labonte, Chevrolet Lumina, 172.448.
31. Michael Waltrip, Pontiac Grand Prix, 172.448. 32. Bobby Labonte, Ford Thunderbird, 172.427. 33. Mark Martin, Ford Thunderbird, 172.286. 34. Sterling Marlin, Ford Thunderbird, 172.280. 35. Neil Bonnett, Chevrolet Lumina, 172.237. 36. Rick Wilson, Pontiac Grand Prix, 172.129. 37. Dave Marcis, Chevrolet Lumina, 171.907. 38. Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ford Thunderbird, 171.875. 39. T.W. Taylor, Ford Thunderbird, 171.778. 40. Kenny Wallace, Pontiac Grand Prix, 171.729. 41. Kyle Petty, Pontiac Grand Prix, no speed, provisional starter. 42. Hut Stricklin, Ford Thunderbird, no speed, provisional starter.
Slick 50 300 results
1. (5) Ward Burton, Chevrolet, 197, $32,000, 109.640. 2. (25) Larry Pearson, Chevrolet, 197, $14,250. 3. (18) Michael Waltrip, Pontiac, 197, $9,725. 4. (11) Harry Gant, Chevrolet, 197, $9,475. 5. (39) Sterling Marlin, Ford, 196, $8,975. 6. (9) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 196, $12,300. 7. (22) Robert Pressley, Chevrolet, 196, $9,300. 8. (14) Mike Wallace, Chevrolet, 196, $8,750. 9. (29) Steve Grissom, Chevrolet, 196, $9,800. 10. (40) Tom Peck, Chevrolet, 196, $7,750.
11. (3) Ken Schrader, Chevrolet, 196, $6,050. 12. (42) Ronald Cooper, Buick, 196, $5,275. 13. (12) Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 195, $4,500. 14. (38) Rodney Combs, Ford, 195, $5,350. 15. (10) ** Ricky Craven, Chevrolet, 195, $5,475. 16. (32) Hermie Sadler, Oldsmobile, 195, $5,450. 17. (33) Tommy Houston, Ford, 195, $6,550. 18. (26) Johnny Benson Jr., Chevrolet, 195, $3,700. 19. (28) Richard Lasater, Chevrolet, 195, $4,250. 20. (7) Jeff Purvis, Chevrolet, 194, $3,625. 21. (13) Jason Keller, Oldsmobile, 193, $3,550. 22. (16) Dennis Setzer, Chevrolet, 190, crash, $5,250. 23. Chad Little, Ford, 190, $3,450. 24. (41) Tim Fedewa, 185, $4,000. 25. (8) Joe Bessey, Chevrolet, 182, crash, $4,225.
26. (1) Mark Martin, Ford, 162, crash, $4,100. 27. (24) Randy LaJoie, Chevrolet, 162, ignition, $3,325. 28. (2) Bill Elliott, Ford, 144, engine failure, $3,850. 29. (31) Ed Berrier, Chevrolet, 143, engine failure, $3,275. 30. (27) Tracy Leslie, Chevrolet, 142, engine failure, $5,600. 31. (30) Hut Stricklin, Ford, 131, engine failure, $3,225. 32. (17) Jim Bown, Chevrolet, 111, engine failure, $3,200. 33. (37) David Green, Chevrolet, 106, $5,525. 34. (6) Todd Bodine, Chevrolet, 93, crash, $5,500. 35. (4) Neil Bonnett, Chevrolet, 84, crash, $3,125. 36. (15) Chuck Bown, Chevrolet, 80, engine failure, $3,700. 37. (35) Bobby Dotter, Chevrolet, 45, handling, $3,675. 38. (20) Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, 42, overheating, $3,050. 39. (36) Jeff Burton, Ford, 29, engine failure, $5,375. 40. (21) Phil Parsons, Chevrolet, 27, crash, $3,000. 41. (34) Rick Wilson, Chevrolet, 6, crash, $3,000. 42. (19) Shawna Robinson, Pontiac, 5, crash, $3,600.
Time of race: 2:44:05. Margin of victory: 2.42 seconds. Caution flags: 10 for 54 laps. Lead changes: 19 among 8 drivers. Lap leaders: Schrader 1; T.Bodine 2-3; Bessey 4-11; T.Bodine 12; Bessey 13-21; W.Burton 22-50; Bessey 51-68; Martin 69-76; Bessey 77-88; Gant 89-104; M.Waltrip 105; W.Burton 106-123; Martin 124-131; Bessey 132-140; Pearson 141-142; Martin 143-159; W.Burton 160-161; Martin 162; W.Burton 163-197.
Final series point standings: Grissom 3,846; Craven 3,593; D.Green 3,584; C.Bown 3,532; Nemechek 3,443; W.Burton 3,413; Dotter 3,406; Pressley 3,389; T. Bodine 3,387; Sadler 3,362.
NASCAR Winston Cup points
1. Dale Earnhardt (1st-six times), Chevrolet; 4387. 2. Rusty Wallace (1st-nine times), Pontiac; 4261. 3. Mark Martin (1st-five times), Ford; 4047. 4. Dale Jarrett (1st), Chevrolet; 3849. 5. Morgan Shepherd (1st), Ford; 3735. 6. Kyle Petty (1st), Pontiac; 3730. 7. Ernie Irvan (1st-three times), Chevrolet/Ford; 3707. 8. Ken Schrader (2nd-twice), Chevrolet; 3633. 9. Bill Elliott (2nd), Ford; 3609. 10. Ricky Rudd (1st), Chevrolet; 3469. 11. Harry Gant (3rd), Chevrolet; 3440. 12. Jimmy Spencer (2nd), Ford; 3381. 13. Jeff Gordon (2nd-twice), Chevrolet; 3372. 14. Darrell Waltrip (3rd), Chevrolet; 3309. 15. Geoff Bodine (1st), Ford; 3292. 16. Sterling Marlin (2nd), Ford; 3243. 17. Terry Labonte (6th), Chevrolet; 3156. 18. Brett Bodine (2nd), Ford; 3140. 19. Michael Waltrip (8th), Pontiac; 3136. 20. Bobby Labonte (7th-twice), Ford; 3095.