HAMPTON, Ga. -- It's a rare Winston Cup finale when Dale Earnhardt isn't in the running for the championship. But today is one of those days.
Earnhardt, the seven-time champion, is in fourth place, 236 points out of first, as the NAPA 500 takes the green flag today.
"It's been a tough year," he said. "But you can't look back. You've got to look forward with what you're doing."
A wreck June 28 in Talladega, Ala., left Earnhardt with a broken collarbone and sternum. And though he got points in every race after that and impressed everyone by winning the pole at Watkins Glen and ran the entire race two weeks later, the team was never the same.
"It affected everything -- practice, qualifying, setup, the whole thing," Earnhardt said. "It's tough to play hurt. But it's done. There's nothing I can do about it now."
This will mark his second consecutive year without a title, the first time that has happened since the late 1980s, when Bill Elliott (1988) and Rusty Wallace (1989) made him wait for his fourth championship in 1990.
Today, either Terry Labonte or Jeff Gordon will win his second title or Dale Jarrett will win his first. Earnhardt said he thinks Labonte will celebrate a championship, "because it's been a long time  since he's won it, and I think he's hungrier."
Earnhardt, who has gone 28 races without winning, certainly will be hungry next season.
"I think next season is going to be more aggressive for everybody," he said. "We've got to get our team back on solid ground, as solid as it was before the accident. We've got to get it turned around. Maybe I owe 'em one more [title]."
Earnhardt is signed to drive for the Richard Childress team through the year 2000.
Joe Bessey avoided all the crashes yesterday and led the last 18 laps to win the ARCA General Tire Hoosier 500K at an average speed of 109.006 mph. Jerry Hill of La Plata, Md., got caught up in a crash on lap 182 and finished 15th.
Three drivers, Mickey Hudspeth (severe left forearm injury), John Gill (fractured left leg) and Ron Burchette (concussion), were airlifted to Georgia Baptist Medical Center in Atlanta.
The race was called with eight laps to go after nine caution flags so that the Winston Cup cars could get in their final practice before nightfall.
Burn rubber not bras
That's the bumper-sticker slogan of the new Busch Grand National race team owned by Winston Cup driver Geoff Bodine. Bodine has gotten the sponsorship of the Lovable Co., one of the world's oldest and independent bra manufacturers, for the Grand National and All Pro Division cars that will be driven by Tammy Jo Kirk.
"I never thought there would come a day when I'd have a woman driving for me or a bra company sponsoring me," Bodine said, blushing just a little.
Kirk, 33, was the most improved driver in the All Pro Division in 1991 and finished ninth in points in 1992, 1993 and 1994, before slipping to 15th last season.
"I consider Lovable part of my vital racing equipment," she said. "I can't go without my car, my team or my sponsor. I already have a lucky Lovable bra for race days."
And, oh, yes, the car's color is hot pink.
A telling tale
Today would have been the last race for Kyle Petty with his longtime team SABCO Racing. But Petty failed to qualify yesterday.
Shortly after the team's poor showing, car owner Felix Sabates announced the drivers and sponsors for his 1997 Monte Carlos: Wally Dallenbach in the SABCO/First Union; Joe Nemechek in Petty's old No. 42 with BellSouth; and, as previously announced, Robby Gordon in the Coors Light entry.
Petty will be involved in a new team, jointly owned by himself, Richard Petty and engine builder David Evans. It will be known as Petty Enterprises 2. The team will field Pontiacs with Mattel Hot Wheels sponsorship.
What: NASCAR's Winston Cup season-ending race
Where: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hampton, Ga.
Time: Today, 12: 40 p.m.
Pole-sitter: Bobby Labonte, 185.887 mph
Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt
Pub Date: 11/10/96