Earnhardt is just a race away from his 6th title Wallace starts beside him, 126 points back

November 14, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

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.

He tried to find time for his wife, Teressa, and their 11th wedding anniversary celebration, and a group of celebrities, including Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe and Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox.

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."

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