Hold On Just A Second

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HAMPTON, Ga. – It’s only for pride, but don’t think for a second that Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt won’t be fighting for every point and every position they can get Sunday.

Heading into the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Burton leads Earnhardt by 19 points for second place in the points standings. The year-end payout will obviously be more substantial for the driver who finishes runner-up to champion Bobby Labonte, but that’s something neither Burton nor Earnhardt will care about Sunday.

The priority is to finish as high in the points standings as possible, and the early returns have Earnhardt as the favorite. Earnhardt will start from the eighth position Sunday after a solid qualifying run Friday afternoon, while Burton struggled in qualifying, and was forced to take a provisional (he’ll start 37th).

Earnhardt came up short in his bid to win a record eighth Winston Cup championship when Labonte clinched the title last Sunday at Homestead. "The Intimidator" has finished second in the points standings twice during his career - in 1989 to Rusty Wallace and in 1995 to Jeff Gordon.

"I’m frustrated about letting the eighth championship slip away… We’re racing the 99 team right now," Earnhardt said. "They jumped ahead of us last week (at Homestead) and now we have one chance to get it back. We need to repeat our performance from March, and that’s all we can do. If we’re ahead of them when the checkered flag drops we’ll see where it all winds up."

Earnhardt nipped Labonte for the victory in the closest finish of the season earlier this year in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta.

Burton and his No. 99 Citgo team have four top-five finishes in their past five races at Atlanta. The one exception came in the Cracker Barrel 500, when he crashed after only 68 laps and finished last. Burton said he realizes he’s got his work cut out for him Sunday.

"Yeah, we’ve got a lot of work to do, that’s for sure," Burton said. "We’ve struggled since we’ve gotten here, and we’re trying to figure out what the problem is. Hopefully we’ll get the situation straightened out by Sunday.

"I don’t normally go every weekend thinking about the points battle. Of course it would be great to finish in second. Everyone looks at the second-place finisher as the top contender for the next season, so that’s another reason I’d like to finish behind Bobby (Labonte).

"Regardless if I finish second or third this season, it will be my highest-career finish in the Winston Cup points standings, so I’ll be happy with the outcome. This team has worked really hard this season, and there are only three drivers out there that can say they finished in the Top 3, so we’re all excited with the results. Hopefully next year will be our year."

Burton’s highest finish in the championship standings has been fourth, in 1997. He’s finished fifth the past two seasons.

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