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The countdown continues on the NASCAR trail as Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt look to Martinsville for the next battle.

A 21-point difference between the leading point-getters on the tour is expected to get tighter Sunday at Martinsville, but nobody has told that to the leader, Martin. Though Martinsville is considered to be a strong track for Earnhardt, it is the Martin team that has put more emphasis on the half-mile track.Extensive studying there has prepared Martin for the first of six remaining tests before the title is decided. Martin spent three days testing at Martinsville last week with almost no one around but him and his team. They are hoping that they will be able to use that extra work this weekend.

``Obviously that's why we're spending so much time at this track,' Martin said last week. ``We know Dale is very strong here, and we haven't been. After looking at the remaining races, the team decided that Martinsville was our weakest track.

``And we can't afford to have a weak link. It is vital that we run good here.'

Martinsville has been good to Earnhardt over the years. He has won four times there and has five top five finishes in the last four years. Martin, on the other hand, has struggled on Martinsville's tight layout. He has not finished in the top five at Martinsville since 1981.

But he is planning on ending that skid Sunday, not with just a top-five finish but with a win.

``Dale Earnhardt can win every race left, and except for this place, I feel we can win everywhere,' Martin said. ``We're testing so we can win this one. We don't want to just run good, we want to win. We have no choice. We've got to win every race.'

The usual talk of ``stroking' has not come up during this point battle. Earnhardt and Martin respect each other tremendously. They both realize they are different type drivers, and that makes this such an interesting battle. If there was any doubt that these two are ready to go after each other, it ended last week at Dover.

Martin and Earnhardt raced side-by-side for some 25 laps late in the race, easily the day's best action, and some considered it the highlight of the season. It was a standoff to see which driver would blink first. Neither did.

After the race, in which Martin finished second, just ahead of Earnhardt, the two embraced as Martin got out of his car.

``I enjoyed that,' Earnhardt said.

He said that he expects more of the same as the tour winds down with races at North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, Rockingham, Phoenix and Atlanta following Martinsville. Earnhardt will be favored at Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Atlanta. Martin will be favored at Rockingham and Charlotte but expects to be hounding Earnhardt everywhere he goes.

``We're going to have to race Mark every week,' Earnhardt said. ``Mark and his team are working really well together, and they have the chemistry bubbling about like we do on our team.

``Obviously I don't plan on having any bad luck, but I hope Mark doesn't run into any either. I want to race him to the wire, settle it on the race track. That's the way a championship should be settled.'

Martin, on the other hand, says he is not just racing Earnhardt.

``We can't watch that No. 3 car and expect to get the championship,' Martin said. ``We've been strong lately, but Dale is stronger right now. That has to change.'

At Dover, Earnhardt veered into the side of Martin's Ford at one point in the race. Martin didn't even slow down, and the two went into the first turn side-by-side.

``We have to be aggressive,' Martin said.

But he knows that at Martinsville, he must first survive the early laps before he can be aggressive at the end.

``Martinsville is a place where we have to improve,' he said. ``I won a Late Model Stock race here a few years back, but this is a different ball game. I can't just run around and expect to do well. I have to be smart, but I also have to be aggressive.'

With all the emphasis the team has put on this race, it's apparent that they see this as the most important race of the final six.

Does that put added pressure on Martin? Earnhardt thinks so.

``In Winston Cup racing, there is always pressure to win,' the three-time champion said. ``That's exciting. I like pressure. Mark is feeling some pressure, too. I'm not going to argue about who has the most pressure, but I am going to apply as much pressure on him as I can.'

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