The stakes were big, but Mark Martin's team was willing to gamble in yesterday's Holly Farms 400 at North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway.
An extra pit stop midway through the 400-lap race cost Martin some precious ground, but the chassis adjustments that were made in the caution-period stop eventually paid off as he won his third race of the season, allowing him to hold onto a 16-point lead over Dale Earnhardt in the $1 million NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
"We spent the whole race preparing for that last dash," said Martin, who passed Earnhardt with 38 laps remaining, then drove away to a 3.7-second victory with an average speed of 93.818 mph.
"The guys were right on the money with that stop," he said. "Dale was gone. There was no way we were going to catch him the way things were. We took a big gamble and they got it right in the pits."
Earnhardt, who led all but 70 of the first 362 laps on the 0.625-mile oval and appeared well on the way to his ninth victory of the season, said: "We just got a real tight set of tires that last time and the car just wouldn't run that good. Give Mark and those guys credit for winning the race. We just couldn't run with him at the end."
Martin, trying to win his first series title, led only the first lap and those final 38 on the way to his fourth career victory. He won $52,875 and has 3,869 points; Earnhardt has 3,853. Earnhardt, a three-time Winston Cup champion, got a five-point bonus for leading the most laps, but Martin matched that with a five-point award for finishing ahead of his closest pursuer.
The 16-point difference between first and second with four races remaining is the closest at this point in the 29-race season since the modern scoring system was inaugurated in 1975. The closest previous duel was in 1985, when Darrell Waltrip led Bill Elliott by 20 points at the same juncture.
Brett Bodine was third, followed by Elliott, Ken Schrader, Ernie Irvan, Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and Alan Kulwicki, all on the lead lap at the end. The total of 244 cars finishing on the lead lap this season breaks the modern NASCAR record of 242 set last year.
Kyle Petty, who won the pole, trailed Martin, the other front-row starter, through the first lap, then regained the lead and stayed out front until Lap 66 when he spun in Turn 4. Petty barely touched the wall and was able to continue, but fell far off the pace as he gave up the lead to Earnhardt. He finished 10th.
Spanish Grand Prix: In Jerez, Spain, Alain Prost of France won the 44th Formula One race of his career, preserving a slim chance of retaining his world driving championship.
Prost, in a Ferrari, took over first on the 29th lap and swept away to a 22-second victory over teammate Nigel Mansell of Britain. Alessandro Nannini of Italy was third in a Benetton-Ford.
Prost raced the 73 laps on the 2.621-mile circuit in 1 hour 48 minutes 1.461 seconds, an average speed of 106.3 mph for the 191.328 miles.
Prost's fifth victory of the season, combined with Ayrton Senna's mechanical problems that caused him to quit on Lap 54, moved Prost within nine points of Senna, 78-69, in the standings. There are two races left, starting with the Japanese Grand Prix, Oct. 21. The title is Prost's if he wins the final two races. Senna, of Brazil, would have won the championship with a victory or a poor finish by Prost. If Senna wins either race or Prost finishes below third in either, the Brazilian is champion.