Dale Earnhardt could not have written a better lead-in to the finish of the 1990 NASCAR Winston Cup stock car championship in Sunday's Atlanta Journal 500.
Now he would like to write an equally satisfying finish.After chasing Mark Martin most of the season, Earnhardt goes into the 500-mile race at Atlanta Motor Speedway leading his younger, less experienced rival by six points in the title battle.
That means the three-time champion controls his own destiny. If he simply finishes ahead of Martin by at least two positions, Earnhardt will be a four-time champion and will get the $1 million bonus that goes with the title.
If the 38-year-old Earnhardt had been allowed to pick a place to run this important race, he probably would have chosen the 1.522-mile Atlanta oval, a track on which he has been a dominating presence, winning two in a row - this race in 1989 and the 1990 spring race - and three of the last five.
His team is confident, experienced and fielding the same Chevrolet Lumina that ran away from the field here in March.
The 31-year-old Martin, working hard to win his first title, must overcome not only the intimidating Earnhardt, but his own nerves.
His team has only been together for three years and hasn't faced this kind of pressure before.
And Martin is trying to get the job done in a Ford Thunderbird borrowed for the occasion from a competitor because his Roush Racing team was not satisfied with their own cars on this track.
Martin has failed to finish four of the past five races here - three due to engine problems and one because of a crash - and his best finish is fifth.
But, even though the cards seems to be stacked in his favor, Earnhardt expects the race, televised live by ESPN beginning at 12:30 p.m. EST, to be just as dramatic as the points chase has been since June.
Martin took the lead on June 10 and led for 17 races, never by more than 94 points, before Earnhardt's victory two weeks ago at Phoenix, combined with Martin's 10th-place finish, vaulted him to the front for the ultimate showdown.
"He's not gonna back off; neither one of us will," Earnhardt said. "It's getting down to the championship. Six points is just about like being even. We've been racing even all year and I figure we can do it for another race."
Some people view Martin's borrowed car as an indication of desperation and uncertainty by Jack Roush and his team. They deny it, but unfamiliarity with the car, borrowed from Robert Yates, who fields cars for Davey Allison, nearly proved disastrous for Martin in qualifying on Friday. Because the car has a different electrical system than his own, the team burned an ignition wire and nearly didn't get the car started.
Martin wound up qualifying a disappointing 11th, with Earnhardt up ahead of him in sixth on the 42-car grid.
"That problem surprised us, but we've got everything figured out and we have lots of confidence that the car will be real good in the race," Martin said. "The car is real comfortable right now.
"I think we would get outrun if we didn't do something different than we were doing. So I think what we've done is exactly what we needed to do."
He added, "A lot of people don't realize, probably now I run most races about the same, no matter what the conditions are or situations. There is a little bit of difference in the way you prepare the car. I don't know that Dale and his guys will change anything, but we needed to take some risks with new things to look for some new speed here for this last race because we couldn't afford to be just a top-five runner. We need to try to lead the most laps and win the race."
Added to the drama of the final race is another battle, the championship duel between Chevrolet, trying to extend its unprecedented string of manufacturers' titles to eight, and Ford, which last won the title in 1969.
Chevy, on the basis of Earnhardt's win at Phoenix, leads that race by three points, it would take a Ford victory Sunday, combined with another manufacturer finishing ahead of the top Chevrolet, for Ford to overcome that lead.