HAMPTON, Ga. -- The three men who will battle for the Winston Cup championship today in the NAPA 500 couldn't be more different or more alike.
Jeff Gordon, with his stylish, slicked-back hair and movie-star good looks, could have just walked out of an Ivy League college. Dale Jarrett, by contrast, is tall, broad-shouldered and rugged. He could have just walked out of the backwoods -- or the back yard of the house next door. And Mark Martin, with his buzzcut, his body a mass of muscle and his mouth set in a determined line, appears ready to snap to attention and fill the role of a Marine drill sergeant.
"We are different," Jarrett said. "We look different, our sizes are different -- Mark's at one end at 5-5, 130, Jeff's in the middle at 5-9 and I'm at the other end, 6-2 and 210. We all have different backgrounds. But we've all arrived at the same place in time and we all have the same inside drive, the same competitor's heart that almost forces us to be the best we can be.
"And none of our seasons will be complete unless our name is on that championship trophy."
By the end of the day, a dream will come true for one of them. If it's Gordon, he will be celebrating his second title in three years.
If it's Jarrett or Martin, it will be his first.
"No one deserves to win it more than the other guy," Gordon said. "We all deserve to win it. We've all given everything we have to give for an entire season."
It is a unique situation. Usually, the Winston Cup season comes down to a two-man battle. But this time, it is three men, and this time it is three men who seem to represent the road Winston Cup racing has traveled from its meager beginnings to its current nationwide prosperity.
Jarrett, 40, represents the sport's roots. He is the son of Ned Jarrett, a two-time Winston Cup champion, who grew up in Hickory, N.C., the heart of stock-car racing territory.
Martin, 38, represents the sport's formative years. He grew up in Batesville, Ark., racing stock cars on the Midwest's American Speed Association circuit with such other upstarts as Rusty Wallace, the late Alan Kulwicki and Ken Schrader before they all made their way to Winston Cup racing just as the series was beginning to think of spreading its focus beyond its southern boundaries.
Just as some of NASCAR's early forays floundered, so did Martin's first attempt to make it in this series. At the end of the 1983 season, he left for nearly three years, returning to the ASA circuit to regain his confidence. When he came back in 1986, it was to stay.
And then there is Gordon, 26, the sport's latest superstar, who represents where the Winston Cup series is going. He chums with talk-show host David Letterman, dines with tennis player Monica Seles and, yes, gives lectures to engineering classes at Harvard.
Gordon is NASCAR's future.
But today, on cold, hard asphalt in big powerful racing machines, each will attempt to be the star of the moment. Each will take one last shot at the title each one of them craves.
"I've won a championship and I want another one," said Gordon, who in 1995 became the youngest Winston Cup champion at the age of 24. "Two years later, I appreciate the first one more because I have a better perspective about how hard it is to win.
"And I know those guys are hungry. I know they want it bad. But I want it bad, too. A lot of guys have one championship. To be a multiple champion is to be in a pretty elite class."
If Gordon wins, he will be only the 13th driver since NASCAR began in 1949 to earn more than one championship.
Jarrett's perspective is different. It is rooted in his soul. He may not remember his father's 1961 title, but he has a clear picture of the one that came in 1965.
"I remember that Dad did something very special," Jarrett said. "I ZTC remember a whole community coming together because of what he accomplished. And I remember the trophy in our house and how I wasn't allowed to get too close to that trophy." Even so, Jarrett finds it hard to explain why he wants this title so badly.
"I can tell you it's not the money," he said, when reminded the Winston Cup champion gets a $1.5 million payoff. "It's being able to say you're the champion. It's like winning any championship, even in high school football or golf. It's special. But it's also more than that. It's magnified many times over."
As for Martin, who like many middle children never seems to know a day of rest, winning, it seems, would provide a few hours of peace for his tortured, competitive soul.
"After not winning a race in 1996, I didn't know if I'd ever be able to win another Winston Cup race," he said.
Even now, after four victories this season, he isn't sure he'll ever win again.
"Even though I don't really enjoy the success that I've had, it's taken my whole life and the whole focus of my life to get here," he said. "If I could win this championship -- well, it would be something for my future, something for after I retire, to look back on, to say and know I won it."