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EARNHARDT ON POLE FOR MOTORCRAFT

EARNHARDT ON POLE FOR MOTORCRAFT

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There is only one dry road in the entire state of Georgia this week, and it just happens to be the 1 1/2-mile strip called the Atlanta International Raceway.

Today, 40 untested cars will hit the road in the Motorcraft 500.A two-day thunderstorm has flooded much of Georgia, raining out qualifying and almost all practices this week, forcing NASCAR to resort to a point-standing start for the third time in the last 10 races. Dale Earnhardt, as he has in the other two rain starts, will start from the pole.

But like every other driver in the field, Earnhardt has no idea what's going to happen after the green flag falls at 1 p.m. Some cars will start today with less than 20 minutes of practice, and no team is fully prepared for the race. That, Earnhardt said, will work to his advantage.

``We've got a great starting position, and we're ready to race,' he said. ``We didn't run real hard in practice ... but I'm ready.'

Earnhardt will start beside Rusty Wallace, who is second in the point race, but behind the front row will be an odd-sounding top 10. Morgan Shepherd and Ricky Rudd are on the second row, followed by Kyle Petty, Jimmy Spencer, Bill Elliott, Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and Geoff Bodine. Mark Martin will start 17th, Davey Allison 28th and Alan Kulwicki 31st.

One of the most intriguing stories will the be the No. 22 starter, Buddy Baker. Baker, the eighth winningest super-speedway driver in tour history, will be racing for the first time since 1988 when an injury forced him to retire. Today, in the Junie Donlavey Thunderbird, Baker will begin his comeback.

``I feel great about it,' Baker said. ``I think we'll be competitive. That's really all I want to do. I'm just glad to be back.'

Baker, who won the 1975 Dixie 500 and the 1979 Atlanta 500 here, will drive a car powered by a Jack Roush engine. Roush is the team owner of the Martin team, one of the strongest on the circuit.

``That motor is a monster,' Baker said. ``It'll fly.'

Like the rest of the field, Baker has no idea what to expect today. The lack of practice time forced almost every team to switch engines and change setups Saturday in anticipation of a long, grueling race today. The uncertainty has some of the teams worried.

Petty, who is coming off a brilliant win two weeks ago at Rockingham, had only two laps of practice time before a late-Saturday session.

``Right now, I'd have to say no, we haven't had enough practice time,' Petty said. ``You need to have two or three hours no matter what, if the car is perfect or not. It's going to hurt some people more than others, but it's a definite detriment to everybody.'

Petty will start the same car he raced at Rockingham, when he blitzed the field and won almost $300,000 in prizes and bonuses. His team worked well here last year, and he is considered one of the favorites today.

Another is Wallace, who will run a Pontiac that he tested last year at Atlanta.

``This car's been tested, so it's not cold turkey,' he said.

Wallace, like most everyone else, predicts Earnhardt will be the one to beat. Earnhardt won here in November, the last race of the 1989 season, in a dominating fashion. He dominated the only other big-track race this year at Daytona, and that gives car-owner Richard Childress reason to believe that his car will be fast again today.

``We're ready to race right now,' he said. ``It's always hard to repeat any performance, but I think we'll run real strong. We're leading the points right now, and we've had three races and we should have done better in all three. That means everybody else must be doing a little worse.'

Few people are arguing with that reasoning.

Derrike Cope, who won the Daytona 500 after Earnhardt blew a tire on the last lap, thinks Earnhardt is an easy pick.

``He was tough here in November, and he'll be tough (today),' Cope said. ``He has a way of overcoming obstacles and the elements. He's definitely got some elements to overcome here, so you've got to put your money on him.'

Other drivers who did get in some fast laps during testing were Shepherd, Martin, Allison and Harry Gant.

The weather report today calls for sunny skies with highs in the mid-60s.

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