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Retro Racing: History proves title can be lost with one bad finish

October 14, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Mechanical failure at CMS in '89 cost Earnhardt points lead as Wallace took title

This year's Chase contenders are wary of what can happen Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It's been said that you can't win the championship with this many races left in the season, but you can lose it with a bad finish.

That's exactly what happened to Dale Earnhardt in the 1989 All Pro Auto Parts 500. In the days before the points were reset and bonuses given, the championship still sometimes came down to a single momentum-changing event. And in this case, a simple mechanical failure at Charlotte cost Earnhardt the points lead and Rusty Wallace took the title.

"You can't drive the car if it ain't running, and it wasn't running."

--DALE EARNHARDT

Wallace had been in this situation before. He won four of the final five races in 1988 to put the pressure on points leader Bill Elliott. But Elliott never wavered under Wallace's relentless attack, running in the top five four times during that stretch and eventually hanging on to the championship by 24 points.

Wallace vowed things would be different in 1989 -- and he started off with three wins in the first six races. However, his Pontiac seemed especially prone to engine failure early on. He blew engines at Atlanta, Martinsville and in the May 600-miler at Charlotte, resulting each time in a 31st-place finish -- and putting Wallace a distant seventh in the points.

But Earnhardt also had engine issues in the Coca-Cola 600, a foreshadowing of what would happen later in the season. The Intimidator immediately bounced back with a dominating win at Dover and took over the points lead with a fourth-place finish at Sonoma.

Wallace patiently whittled away at Earnhardt's lead throughout the summer and was only 87 points out when he was involved in a multi-car accident at Talladega, resulting in a 37th-place finish. Even though he and Earnhardt traded wins over the next five races, it appeared that with Earnhardt able to maintain a consistent pace, Wallace would be denied a second year in a row.

But Charlotte changed all that. Just 13 laps into race, Earnhardt's camshaft broke and the No. 3 Chevrolet limped into the garage, done for the day. He finished last in the 42-car field, and saw his points lead become a 35-point deficit when Wallace wound up eighth.

"You can't drive the car if it ain't running, and it wasn't running," Earnhardt said. "Anybody can have trouble and we had it today.

"Rusty didn't beat us, we beat ourselves. But we won't give up on winning the championship. It's definitely not over. This was the wrong time for this to happen, but there's still four races left and anything can happen."

"I'm sorry Dale had a problem, but just about the time Dale has some bad fortune, I have some good fortune."

--RUSTY WALLACE

Wallace was adamant that it wasn't just luck that landed him the points lead for the first time in over a year.

"It's not like I fell into something," he said. "If everybody remembers, at the beginning of the season I had three 31st-place finishes. I blew up at Martinsville, at Atlanta and blew up here at Charlotte. Dale doesn't have three finishes like that.

"I'm sorry Dale had a problem, but just about the time Dale has some bad fortune, I have some good fortune. I just hope that I can race him to the end and that we don't trip. I just want to run consistent, run up front and stay up front."

Wallace did just that by finishing seventh at North Wilkesboro and second at Rockingham, while Earnhardt struggled at both tracks. That gave Wallace a lead of 109 points with two races remaining.

Good thing, too, because Wallace needed almost all of that cushion when he had a miserable afternoon in the season finale at Atlanta, going down three laps early and struggling to finish 15th. Even though Earnhardt led the most laps -- 249 -- and won in commanding fashion, Wallace was able to clinch the championship by a mere 12 points.

"We had two flat tires, a loose lug nut, the wrong chassis setup at the start and a bad vibration that I thought was another flat, but that's history now," Wallace said at the end of the Atlanta race. "I'm the 1989 champion and that's what we came here for."

It also earned him a $1 million bonus from Winston.

"For a time out there when it felt like the whole thing was slipping away, it was the biggest nightmare of my life," Wallace said. "But when I came around for that last lap and realized I had won the championship, it was the most glorious feeling in the world.

"What a roller-coaster ride. I felt that if I lost it, it would be a tragedy because we had won six races and run better than anyone else all season, and that's what it's all about. But I cut it a lot closer than I'd planned."