HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) _ What's all the fuss about Winston Cup's Rookie of the Year battle?

The answer: Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, David Pearson, Donnie Allison, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Kenny Schrader, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, Dick Trickle and Jeff Gordon.

Those are just some of the drivers - certainly the best-known ones - who have won the rookie award since it began in 1958.

Of course, there have also been some names like Shorty Rollins, Woodie Wilson, Bill Dennis, Larry Smith, Skip Manning and Ronnie Thomas who haven't lived up to that early promise in the Winston Cup series.

Still, enough of the award-winning first-year drivers have gone on to stardom to make it a truly coveted goal.

This year's race is one of the most hotly contested yet, with Jeff Burton heading into Sunday's season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway just 10 points ahead of Joe Nemechek and 15 in front of Steve Grissom.

''We are in control of our own destiny,'' said Burton, one of two South Boston, Va., brothers - Ward is sixth in the rookie points - trying to establish themselves in the elite stock car series.

Jeff jumped to a big lead in the first half of the season, helped by a fourth-place finish in the March race at Atlanta in only his fifth Winston Cup start.

''That race gave me a lot of confidence,'' said Burton, who led the race by 18 seconds at one point. ''I probably should have won at Atlanta, and I'm looking foward to another shot.''

He built the rookie lead to 30 points after the July race at Daytona Beach, Fla., the traditional halfway point in the series. Since then, however, despite another fourth-place finish in the second Pocono race, the margin has dwindled.

Atlanta's 1.522-mile oval has recently been repaved and, combined with new tires from both Goodyear and Hoosier, is expected to be considerably faster than ever before.

''With the new asphalt, I expect the track will be very exciting and super fast,'' Nemechek said. ''The driver with the most luck among Jeff Burton, Steve Grissom and myself on Sunday is going to walk out of Atlanta with the Rookie of the Year title. But it's going to be very important to have a good race.

''The way the rookie points work, you're better off finishing 35th, if the other rookies finish behind you, than you are finishing fifth if the other rookies finish ahead of you.

''The important thing,'' Nemechek continued, ''is to be ahead of the other rookies, so it's going to be very important to qualifying ahead of them to start with.''

End Adv AMs Thur Nov 10 and editions thereafter