HAMPTON, Ga. -- Sometimes when Winston Cup championships are on the line, drivers reign themselves in. They play it safe, going after the championship and forgetting about the race.
That's what Bill Elliott did a couple years ago -- just ran a slow and steady race to wrap up the points. Elliott is still trying to live it down.
But that's not Dale Earnhardt's style. During his 11-year career, no one has ever accused Earnhardt of coming in the back door.
He has been known, and not always in a complimentary sense, as Ironhead and The Intimidator.
Yesterday, he stuck the nose of his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet into openings that more conservative drivers would have avoided any day. He wanted to get to the front, to collect the bonus points that go with a lead and to have a chance at victory.
"It might have seemed like risky business," Earnhardt said. "But the front end fit in there, so we went on through."
In the end, Morgan Shepherd broke a four-year losing streak to win the Atlanta Journal 500 before an estimated record crowd of 91,000 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Earnhardt boldly claimed what only Richard Petty had previously: a fourth Winston Cup championship.
"I think this one is more exciting than the other three," Earnhardt said after finishing third in the race, behind Geoff Bodine. "It means more because after 11 years in this business, I've learned to respect the competition and I realize how tough it is to win even one of these Winston Cups."
It is Earnhardt's fourth in 10 years, making the Richard Childress-owned team the class of the decade.
The first title came in 1980, the second in 1986 and the third in 1987. Only Petty, with seven titles, has more.
"I've got four, and three more is a lot more," said Earnhardt, 38. "I've got five to 10 good competitive years left. But even if I ever do get seven, Richard Petty will always be more than anything I could be. It just makes me proud to do something only the King has done."
With this year's title comes a $1 million bonus that pushes Earnhardt's earnings to a single-season record of $3,032,830, breaking the $2.4 million mark set by Elliott in 1985. Earnhardt's career earnings are $12,773,908.
He won nine races this season. That's six more than Mark Martin, who came into yesterday's race just six points behind Earnhardt in the championship standings.
But when the race was finished and all the figures figured, Earnhardt had 4,430 points to 4,404 for Martin, who finished sixth. In bonus points collected for leading a lap and leading the most laps, Earnhardt had 165 to Martin's 80.
"Domination pays," Earnhardt said.
But so did his team's effort. Three times this season, at Charlotte, Dover and Sears Point, Earnhardt's car lost either its motor or transmission. Each time, instead of calling it quits, the team labored to get him back in the race. It was an effort that gained him a total of 60 points in the standings.
"I'm proud of what this team has done," Earnhardt said. "We've led the most laps, we won four poles, that's more than anyone else. We set the money record. I'm proud of it all because it adds up to the championship and that's what I wanted more than anything."
And Earnhardt did his share to get the title. Known as The Intimidator, he drives his black No. 3 Chevy like every lap is the last lap. And he has a rugged face that can do a psych job on anyone when he wants it to.
In testing for this race, he ran two laps, got out of his car and said it was ready.
Martin, on the other hand, decided to borrow a competitor's car, which he thought would be faster. He tested it for two days.
"I don't know if we should have made the change," said Martin, who ran out of gas twice on pit road and had his ignition go out in the middle of the backstretch. "But we did what we had to do. We had a good run. We made our very best effort and the best team in racing beat us. I'm not embarrassed. They're the best and we pushed them hard to the end."
Shepherd averaged 140.911 mph to cover the 500 miles in 3 hours, 32 minutes and 57 seconds and collect $62,150 for first place . . . Bodine finished second driving Junior Johnson's Budweiser Banquet Ford, while Dale Jarrett came home fourth -- behind Earnhardt -- in the Citgo Ford. They were the only other two drivers on the lead lap.
In the points race, Bodine finished third behind Earnhardt and Martin, with 4,017 points, followed by Elliott (3,999) and Shepherd (3,689) . . . Kyle Petty, who came into the race ranked eighth, wound up 11th in the final standings after a blown engine relegated him to last place. The blown engine cost him not only the Top 10 in points, but also $125,000, as it dropped him off the Winner's Circle program.