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Earnhardt Fiddles, Martin Burns for Title : Atlanta 500: One has won three championships and leads the race for a fourth. The other has switched cars in a desperate attempt to win.


HAMPTON, Ga. — Have Mark Martin and car owner Jack Roush panicked in their preparations for today's $1-million Winston Cup shootout with Dale Earnhardt at Atlanta Motor Speedway?

Has Ford panicked in its struggle with Chevrolet for the prestigious NASCAR stock car manufacturer's championship and its advertising bragging rights?

It would appear so, judging from their actions on the eve of the Atlanta Journal 500 where Martin and his Ford will battle Earnhardt and his Chevrolet with the drivers' championship on the line in the final NASCAR race of the season.

It is so close that Martin, who trails Earnhardt by six points, can win the championship by winning today's race and leading the most laps--no matter what Earnhardt does. If Earnhardt, who will start on the outside of the third row behind pole-sitter Rusty Wallace, wins the race or if he leads the most laps and finishes second--even to Martin--he is the champion.

Only once, in 1979, has the points race been closer coming to the final race. That was the year Darrell Waltrip arrived at Ontario Motor Speedway with a two-point lead over Richard Petty, but when Petty finished fifth and Waltrip eighth, Petty won his seventh championship.

So how is Martin approaching this confrontation on the high-banked, 1.522-mile Atlanta track?

He is, at Ford's suggestion, scrapping the Roush Thunderbirds that won three races, three poles and $862,395 to challenge Earnhardt with a car borrowed from Robert Yates and normally driven by Davey Allison.

"After Phoenix, we came down here with five cars and tested for three days and didn't feel right in any of them," Martin explained Saturday. "When Yates offered us his car for a test, it was faster than any of ours, so when Yates said we could use it, we accepted."

The panic set in after Martin, who had led in points for 17 races since taking the lead June 3, finished poorly in three consecutive races and lost a 45-point lead to Earnhardt two weeks ago at Phoenix. After winning the Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro, N.C., four races ago, Martin finished 14th at Charlotte, 11th at Rockingham, N.C., and 10th at Phoenix.

"I don't know why, but I don't feel any pressure," Martin claimed. "Our whole focus is just the way it's been all year, to do whatever it takes to win."

Even if it means borrowing an experimental, largely untested car. Which, incidentally, hasn't done all that well itself. In its only start, the Yates Ford finished 11th--just be hind Martin--at Phoenix. Allison, who qualified fourth here, hadn't even planned on driving it today.

Martin was only able to get an 11th starting position when the team experienced problems.

"We had trouble with the electronics," Martin said sadly. "I don't know what's wrong. I'll be honest with you, I just don't know. We didn't run nearly as well as we did testing."

Steve Himiel, team manager for Roush, seemed equally puzzled, saying, "We didn't understand the electrical system good enough, because it isn't ours."

Martin, pressed to explain why such a radical move could be made at such a critical time, shrugged his shoulders and lamented: "I think we would get outrun if we didn't do something different than we did. So I think that we've done exactly what we needed to do."

One surprising element of the deal is that Roush is considered to be racing's newest guru, a magician with Ford engines. His cars have won 18 championships in SCCA Trans Am and IMSA GTO, including Dorsey Schroeder this year in GTO.

Earnhardt, with a grin that told more than words, said he would stick with the black Chevy Lumina prepared by Richard Childress that has won nine races and been the most intimidating force in racing.

"We tested here one day last week, and we're as prepared as we can be," Earnhardt said. "This is the same car we won with here last spring. I know what kind of a car Childress gives me to race, and I'm sure not changing now. I don't know how I'd feel if I was in Mark's place, but I think I'd be inclined to go with what got me here."

If Earnhardt wins, it will be his fourth Winston Cup and move him ahead of everyone but Petty. Earnhardt now shares three-victory status with Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Lee Petty, Richard's father.

"The million bucks is important, sure, but the championship itself means the most to me," Earnhardt said. "The money keeps us all in business, but being the champion is what's it all about. Winning a fourth title would make me proud to be the only one but Richard Petty, but four would still be a long way behind the King.

"That doesn't mean we'll quit trying for it, but I'm not going to say I expect to win seven. I'm only 38, though, and I feel like I've got a lot of competitive years ahead of me. There's always the possibility I could get to seven."

Earnhardt, 38, won his first championship in 1980 in only his second year as a NASCAR driver. Nicknamed "Ironhead" for his aggressive, get-out-my-way driving style, he beat Yarborough by 19 points. His other championships came in 1986 and 1987.

"I never felt more relaxed than I do right now," he said. "The turnaround at Phoenix did wonders for me, even though I know we've still go to go out and race for it Sunday. Outside of that one day testing, I've been relaxing and enjoying myself the last two weeks."

After he tested, Earnhardt went bow-hunting for deer in Alabama, then spent the week with his family at his lakeside home in Doolie, N.C. Last Wednesday, on his eighth anniversary, he flew his wife, Teresa, to Charleston, S.C., for dinner.

One driver is nervously switching cars. The other is entertaining himself and his wife. Today they meet for $1 million.

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