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The Callahan Report: NASCAR - 500 Miles Until Winter

12 November 1997

ATLANTA, GA: The 1997 NASCAR Winston Cup Championship will be decided at the 1.54 mile Atlanta Motor Speedway this Sunday. The three drivers with a shot at the title are "gearing up" for their final battle. Series point leader, Jeff Gordon, has a 77-point advantage over second place Dale Jarrett. Mark Martin is 87 points behind Gordon. If Gordon finishes 18th or better, he will take home his second Winston Cup, no matter where Jarrett or Martin finish.

[ Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon, Winston Cup Point Leader

Gordon is taking the challenge seriously. The young driver from Pittsboro, IN has canceled some personal appearances this week in order to better concentrate on the business at hand. Gordon was near the front all day in the last NASCAR event (at Phoenix) when things went bad quickly. Gordon dropped all the way to 31st place after he cut a tire late in the race. He fought his way back to a 17th place finish. Similar luck this weekend in Atlanta could cost him the championship.

Gordon has the odds on his side. The last time a driver took the points lead in the last race of the season was 22 years ago. Richard Petty won his seventh title in 1979 after coming into the final race with a two-point lead over Darrel Waltrip. If Gordon can match his performance from a year ago at Atlanta, the championship is his. Gordon finished third in this race last year after starting second.

[ Dale Jarrett
]Dale Jarrett

Dale Jarrett has visited victory lane seven times this year. Jarrett is having the best season of his career. The second generation driver has won on all types of tracks. It doesn't seem to matter if Jarrett is on a super-speedway or a short oval . . . he is always a threat. He has established himself as one of the top drivers in NASCAR. The track in Atlanta has been reconfigured since the Winston Cup stars last visited the track. With Jarrett's quick learning talents, the new configuration could be to his advantage.

Jarrett has already proven he knows how to get to the front in Atlanta. Jarrett finished 2nd behind Terry Labonte here last year.

The third contender in the 1997 Winston Cup battle is a quiet but a consistent driver. Mark Martin hasn't been in the winner's circle as many times this year as Gordon and Jarrett, but he is constantly up front. Even with terrible handling problems in the last outing at Phoenix, Martin was able to salvage a 6th place finish. If Gordon or Jarrett has any type of problem in Atlanta, it is a safe bet that Mark Martin will be there to capitalize on their misfortune.

[ Mark Martin
]Mark Martin

Mark Martin has had much better success in Atlanta's fall race than Gordon or Jarrett. Martin was the winner in 1991. He visited Atlanta's victory lane again in 1994. He finished seventh (after starting fourth) last year.

There are other drivers who will figure into the mix in Atlanta. Bobby Labonte won this race last year as his brother, Terry, took the Winston Cup Championship. The two brothers took a memorable "victory lap" together. Bobby Labonte, driving a Pontiac this year, has been strong the last few races. He will be a contender in Atlanta again this year.

This race could be the one where down-on-his-luck driver Dale Earnhardt breaks his much talked about losing streak. Earnhardt won't need directions to victory lane in Atlanta. He has already been there four times. Earnhardt won this race in 1984, 1986, 1989, and 1995. The "man in black," who has not won this season, needs a victory Sunday to keep his seventeen- season win streak alive.

Other drivers who seem to have a knack for Atlanta are Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott. Wallace was victorious here in 1988 and 1993. Wallace finished in the top ten here last year. Elliott was the winner of the 1985, 1987, and 1992 Atlanta races.

There are 500 miles remaining in the 1997 Winston Cup season. When the engines stop on Sunday, we will all be sad the season is over. We should not be too sad. Let our heros of speed take their much deserved break. Think of their hard work . . . the time spent away from their families . . . the long work days . . . the personal appearances. No matter who is atop the points ladder Sunday evening, all the teams and drivers in NASCAR deserve the title "champion."

The green flag is scheduled to drop in Atlanta this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. (et). The race will air on ESPN.

Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel

Editor's Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more drawings) can be viewed in the Visions Of Speed Art Gallery.