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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

Earnhardt, Martin Square Off

“The Intimidator” prevailed in a duel in the desert that played a key role in 1990 premier series championship.

Dale Earnhardt’s run for a fourth championship got a huge boost with his win at Phoenix. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

November 4, 1990

The 2020 premier series championship will be decided at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, but it won’t be the first time the quirky flat oval has played a key role in who emerges as a NASCAR champion.

Thirty years ago, the Phoenix track hosted the penultimate race of the 1990 season, a bitter and contentious battle between a pair of future Hall of Famers: Mark Martin (2017) came into the Checker 500 with a 45-point lead over Dale Earnhardt (2010) and the two both were ready for battle, with Martin seeking his first title and Earnhardt his fourth.

Back then, as today, Phoenix was a passionate racing and car town. At the time, it was the only city in the world that could boast of hosting NASCAR, Formula One, Indy Car and NHRA races in the same year.

The battle lines at the track that weekend were clear. There were Chevrolet fans and there were Ford fans, and the division seemed pretty equal, with loud and boisterous cheering on both sides.

In Saturday’s pre-race press conference, Earnhardt played the role of his nickname, “The Intimidator,” repeatedly taunting Martin about alcohol and suggesting that at an upcoming test scheduled for Atlanta Motor Speedway, the two should run some laps, come in and drink a beer and then repeat, with the last man standing declared the winner. Martin, who earlier in his career had struggled with alcohol but had been sober for many years, sat stone-faced as Earnhardt continued to needle him.

Mark Martin won three races in 1990 driving for fellow Hall of Famer Jack Roush. Photo courtesy of RacingOne via Getty Images

On Sunday, the race was hardly a race at all. After qualifying third on the inside of the second row, Earnhardt passed pole-sitter and fellow Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (2013) on Lap 51 and led the last 262 laps to score a dominating – some would say “intimidating” – victory by 0.53 seconds over Ken Schrader and Morgan Shepherd.

The crowd of 75,000 passionate race fans went wild when Earnhardt took the checkered flag, erupting again seconds later when Martin crashed at the end of the race, finishing 10th.

“It couldn’t have gone any better for us,” Earnhardt said. “It went the way you would have wanted to plan it."

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It couldn’t have gone any better for us. It went the way you would have wanted to plan it.

— Dale Earnhardt

Martin, meanwhile, had run in the top five for most of the day, but with his tires used up, he had to make a late pit stop, which dropped him from fourth to 12th. After making up some positions, Martin’s Ford hit some oil from a blown engine ahead of him and he slid and crashed.

“We had a better race car than a 10th-place car,” Martin said. “But things just don’t always work out that way.”

Earnhardt left the Valley of the Sun leading Martin by 6 points and would clinch his fourth title two weeks later in Atlanta.

The rest of This Week in NASCAR:

The Budweiser flowed freely after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Ferrey/Allsport

November 2, 2003

At Phoenix International Raceway (now Phoenix Raceway) Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) passed Jimmie Johnson with 51 laps to go and take a lead he would never relinquish in winning the Checker Auto Parts 500. All told, the third-generation driver led 87 of 312 laps in his Budweiser-sponsored No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet to win for the ninth time in his career. First place was worth a cool $203,017 for the driver and the team.

Cale Yarborough and the Wood Brothers Racing team enjoyed great success together. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

November 3, 1968

The premier series raced just twice at Jeffco Speedway, a 0.500-mile track in Jefferson, Georgia, which is about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta. The first of the two appearances at Jeffco was the 1968 Peach State 200, which featured a trio of Hall of Famers at the top of the finishing order: Cale Yarborough (2012) drove to victory in his Wood Brothers Racing Mercury, finishing half a lap ahead of Richard Petty (2010), with David Pearson (2011) third. The win paid a mere $1,000 for Yarborough and the Wood Brothers team.

Donnie Allison’s last victory came behind the wheel of one of Hoss Ellington’s cars. Photo courtesy of Dozier Mobley/Getty Images

November 5, 1978

Driving Hoss Ellington’s No. 1 Chevrolet sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic, Donnie Allison was victorious in the Dixie 500 at Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway), taking the checkered flag five car lengths ahead of Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010). Allison passed third-place finisher Dave Marcis on Lap 326 of the 328-lap race, as the final three laps were the only ones Allison led in the entire race. The victory, the 10th of Allison’s career, was also his final one in premier series competition. The triumph paid $19,850.

The 28th premier series victory for Carl Edwards came under the lights at Texas Motor Speedway. Photo courtesy of Jerry Markland/Getty Images

November 6, 2016

No one had any inkling at the time, but when Carl Edwards won the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, it would be the Missouri native’s 28th and final premier series victory. Edwards, driving for Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs (2020) bested Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. for the win. While racing for a championship two weeks later at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Edwards was leading when he and Logano made contact and Edwards went into the wall, knocking him out of the race. Shockingly, at the age of 37, Edwards called it quits shortly before the 2017 season began after just two seasons with JGR.

For the second time in his rookie season, Tony Stewart made it to Victory Lane, this time at Phoenix. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

November 7, 1999

En route to winning NASCAR Winston Cup (now premier series) Rookie of the Year honors, Hall of Famer Tony Stewart (2020) captured the Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (now Phoenix Raceway). The victory, Stewart’s second of three in his rookie campaign, came behind the wheel of a Pontiac owned by fellow 2020 inductee Joe Gibbs, while a third member of the 2020 class, Stewart’s teammate Bobby Labonte, finished third behind Mark Martin (2017). For his victory, Stewart earned $168,485.

Rusty Wallace was the man to beat on road courses in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

November 8, 1987

While Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (2013) is rightly recognized as an excellent short-track racer, what’s sometimes overlooked is the phenomenal success the 1989 premier series champion had on road courses. In a seven-race stretch of road races from 1987 to 1990, Wallace won five of the events and finished second in the other two. One of those victories came in the 1987 Winston Western 500 at Riverside International Raceway in Southern California. There, Wallace bested fellow Hall of Famer Benny Parsons (2017) by 1.16 seconds to take home the $47,725 purse money.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.