50 Years of nascar racing ~ One Magical Season, Part 1 (Post 92)
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
No one knew it as the big race car haulers entered the infield that February morning in preparation for the 1992 Daytona 500, but that season was destined to be one of the most competitive in the history of the sport. In a very real way it was that magic season that gave that helped stock car racing climb that one final rung up the ladder, lose its image as a regional blue collar sport, and become the overwhelmingly popular sport that NASCAR racing is today. Many of the sport's newer fans began watching races in 1992, and for those of us who were fans of the sport, the memories of that magical season will carry with us a lifetime.
All the familiar faces were there and of course, as with the start of each season, everyone was on equal footing before those first points were awarded after the 500. For many pundits, the heavy favorite for that year's title was Dale Earnhardt, returning with Richard Childress racing in the famous or infamous (depending on whether you were watching from the stands in awe or watching in your rearview mirror as Dale punted you out of the way) black 3 car. Certainly, betting against Earnhardt was a fool's gamble. He was coming off two straight championships, and a six year streak where he had won four titles, been runner up once, and finished third the other year, amassing 37 wins along the way. (That statistic sounds fairly familiar for a younger driver as of late, over six seasons, doesn't it?) Another driver that figured to be a key player in the title hunt was Bill Elliott. After a dismal 1991 season that saw him only win one race, and finish a then career worst 11th in the points, Elliott had left his family-owned team to drive for legendary car owner Junior Johnson, once a formidable racer in his own right. The so called "Super Team" was generating a lot of excitement. After all, Junior knew a thing or two about championships, having won six of them with teams he owned. Davey Allison and the Yates Racing organization were coming into their own after a couple frustrating seasons. Davey had tied for the most wins in 1991 with 5 . The driver he tied, Handsome Harry Gant, was also back with Leo Jackson, having won four straight races in 1991 to earn himself the title "Mr. September." You couldn't count out the two Hendrick team drivers, Kenny Schrader and Ricky Rudd, both of whom had top-ten points finishes in 1991, with Ricky claiming runner up honors to Dale Earnhardt. Darrell Waltrip, an owner driver, could never be counted out... not with three championships, and an eighth place points finish in 1991. Mark Martin had a disappointing 1991 season, winning one race and finishing sixth in the points after having narrowly lost the title to Earnhardt in 1990. Still Mark and crew chief Steve Hmeil seemed to have that "magic chemistry" that eluded so many, and they were looking to rebound. While he was there at Daytona, there weren't a lot of pundits placing bets on a quiet driver from Wisconsin, Alan Kulwicki. Kulwicki had started 1991 without a sponsor and finished 13th in the points that year, though he had managed to win a race and land Hooters as his sponsor.
The big news though, was another driver nobody thought had a legitimate shot at winning that year's title, though he would garner an awesome amount of press and attention along the way, perhaps more than any other driver. And deservedly so. The King, Richard Petty, was forever changing the face of stock car racing after 1992, having announced that year would be his last as a driver, ending a 33-year career that had made him not only the most popular stock car driver in the nation, but one of the most popular athletes. To those casual fans of stock car racing, Richard Petty was the only name they knew, and the fact he had launched his Fan Appreciation Tour was enough reason for many to order tickets to a race, or at least tune in and watch a Winston Cup event. New seats were being added as quickly as possible to tracks across the nation, and even at that, those tracks couldn't keep up with demand. Even in his retirement, the glory days of his career long since behind him, Richard Petty did more that year than any other man to help our sport grow to the level it is at today. Fortunately, the King had a strong supporting cast. Richard Petty could get people to tune in to stock car racing, but the racing had to be outstanding that year if people were to continue watching after the King retired. NASCAR was blessed with one of the greatest seasons of racing in the sport's history.
It started at Daytona. Even before the racing began there was a lot of controversy. There was a new "Chief NASCAR Cop" in town, Gary Nelson, a former crew chief who knew a thing or two about cheating. Only four cars made it through technical inspection on their first try, and six teams were fined. Infractions ranged from high tech (Jimmy Spencer's hydraulic trunk lid that lowered the rear spoiler) to crude (Stanley Smith had decided to carry a little extra gas on board with 8 feet of fuel line that ran all over the car.) The fact so many teams got caught is proof of how lackadaisical the inspection process was prior to Nelson's arrival.
In somewhat of a surprise, Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott's Junior Johnson teammate, won the pole position, but Bill qualified second to make it an all Johnson front row. Pre-season favorites Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt won the 125 qualifying races.
Early in the going of the Daytona 500, Elliott and Marlin dominated, and Junior was grinning. Davey Allison was right in the mix, and seventh place starter, and NASCAR's bad boy of the era, Ernie Irvan seemed intent on spoiling the "All Ford" show. The caution flag had to be thrown for six laps because of a rain shower on lap 84, after which racing began again in earnest. The halfway point was closing in and no one knew how long Mother Nature would cooperate. Fingers have been pointed at both Irvan and Marlin, but at that time Irvan got the most heat. However it happened, while Sterling and Bill were racing for the lead, Ernie decided to try to capitalize and made it three wide down the back straight. Contact was made, and the three lead cars hit each other, the wall, and about everyone else, in the resulting 14 car melee. Other notables who crashed the party against their wishes were Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Dale Jarrett. While some would continue, all were eliminated from a potential win.
Davey Allison had snaked his way through the huge wreck, and capitalized on his good fortune by winning the race. With so many favorites sidelined, some rather surprising names filled out the top five; Morgan Shepherd driving for the Wood Brothers, Geoff Bodine in Bud Moore's Ford, Alan Kulwicki, and Dick Trickle the sole GM in the top five aboard an unsponsored Oldsmobile. Obviously Davey left Daytona with the points lead. Richard Petty finished 16th in his last Daytona 500.
Elliott was furiously angry with Irvan after the wreck that had spoiled his debut with Junior. But the Super Team was not to be denied much longer. The Elliott Express was steaming up and getting ready to leave the station.
Junior was calling the shots from the pits at the next race of that season, Rockingham. He told Bill to save the car for the first half of the race, and then told Elliott to hit the afterburners. Bill rocketed into the lead and led the final 213 laps to take his first win with Junior. 14 seconds behind in second was Davey Allison, who of course continued as points leader. But Elliott was just gathering momentum.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bill won the pole at Richmond. Elliott had always been noted as an ace on the superspeedways, who struggled a bit on the short tracks. Such wasn't the case that day. Elliott didn't just win that race, he dominated, leading every one of the first 218 laps except one while he was in the pits, and the last 130 for good measure. A surprising Alan Kulwicki emerged in the late stages of the race to give Bill a real challenge for the win, and the two came off the final corner side by side. Elliott prevailed by about a foot. Those 12 inches were worth a whole lot of money as Elliott claimed a $197,600 check from UNOCAL for winning from the pole. To put that in perspective, between the race purse and that bonus, Bill won more money than Allison had won for winning the Daytona 500.
There was no way that Bill Elliott could win Atlanta. His car had been a dog all day, running mid-pack. He had never led a lap. But win it, Bill did. Once again credit goes to a call from the pits by one Junior Johnson. Bill was ready to go a lap down when the pit stop cycle started. Junior told Bill to stay out on the track as all the leaders pitted and hope for a caution. The team had little to lose. Bill got the signal to pit next time by, but at that moment Mike Wallace spun, bringing out the caution. Elliott got the luxury of a yellow flag stop and returned to the track on a lap all by himself. Needless to say Elliott had no problem winning his third race in a row. His only problem was, after winning three straight races, he was still second to Davey Allison, who finished fourth that day in points. It was Allison's fifth straight top five and with NASCAR's points system, that's hard to beat.
Still, Elliott had to be feeling the season was coming to him. The next race on the schedule was Darlington, a track where Bill had a lot of success, and a track that had once made him a million dollars richer back in 1985. Elliott once again took the pole. Once again, Junior had Bill save the car for the first part of the race, then told him to go for the lead. Elliott calmly drove into the lead and started opening ground. Alan Kulwicki was able to keep Bill in sight but not challenge him until the engine in Alan's car let loose with 10 to go. Harry Gant and his team decided to pit for fresh tires, hoping the advantage of fresh rubber would let him catch Bill. It almost worked. Almost. Elliott won his fourth straight race, a modern era record. Allison got another top five, fourth, and held onto the points lead. In marked contrast to the two dominant Fords, a frustrated Dale Earnhardt had not led a single lap in those first five races, and said NASCAR's spoilers rules were to blame for Ford's dominance. (Sound familiar?)
It might also sound familiar, Elliott was so dominant that everyone thought the team was cheating. After all, the Cheater's Hall of Fame would be named after Junior Johnson. As the story goes, one late evening at a bar while celebrating the teams good fortune, a member of Junior's crew let the cat out of the bag. They weren't cheating. They were running a cambered rear end (The wheels leaned in or out from upright to take advantage of the track's banking) which was within the rules. A furious Junior Johnson fired that loose lipped crew person, but the cat was out of the bag, and everyone was taking torches to the rear end of their cars. (While Junior no doubt considered taking a torch to the rear end of that loud mouth.)
Maybe it didn't matter that much. The Winston Cup schedule was hitting the spring "Short Track Season" which had never been a strong part of the year for Bill.
Elliott never really challenged for the win that day at Bristol, after spinning out and losing a lap, then getting caught up in a wreck with Ted Musgrave. Bill got a little reality check and a 20th place finish. A surprising Alan Kulwicki was serving notice that he meant to be a part of the fight for the championship too. Kulwicki was the master of setting up a car's chassis, and he had his Thunderbird so dialed in he could stay with the leaders after two or even no tire pit stops. Kulwicki went on to beat Dale Jarrett, who gave rookie car owner Joe Gibbs his best finish of a miserable season to that point, and reason to hope by coming in second. Davey Allison had even worse problems than Elliott. A broken oil line caused Allison to crash in his own oil. Not only did he finish 28th, he injured his shoulder in the process.
Allison's injuries were painful enough he had Jimmy Hensley qualify the car for the next race on the schedule, North Wilkesboro, though it meant Davey would have to start at the rear of the field. Hensley was also ready to relief drive if Allison couldn't take the pain. As it is often said, having a strong car makes an injured driver feel a lot better. How strong was Allison's car? Strong enough he prevailed to win after a hard fought battle with short track ace Rusty Wallace.
The final of the three-race "Short Track Season" events that Spring took place at Martinsville. While Junior's talkative crew man had been nice enough to tell everyone the cambered rear end secret, he had neglected to tell them exactly how much bend the rear axle housing should have. At a flat track like Martinsville that was a crucial dimension, and a record number of cars broke axles that day because they had gotten too greedy looking for a quick fix. Among the leaders who found out their crew chief had put in too much bend that day were Dale Earnhardt, still looking for his first win, and Alan Kulwicki. Mark Martin also had a cambered rear end, but Jack Roush had played it conservative, and the fact his car lasted helped Mark to take the win that day. Davey Allison had another miserable outing. Already banged up from the wreck at Bristol, a blown tire sent Davey hard into the wall and damaged his rib cage. While Bill Elliott managed a 10th place finish, he was clearly relieved the short track races were behind him, and the Winston Cup circuit returned to the friendlier confines of the Talladega superspeedway for the next event.
Certainly Bill had reason to feel optimistic returning to Talladega, as he had enjoyed great success there. For Davey Allison, the 2.66 mile high banked oval was his home course. Both drivers ran strong but it was a decision by Robert Yates in the pits that tipped the scales for Davey. The 28 team went with gas only on their last two stops in order to maintain track position. Elliott could run with Allison, but when Bill got caught up having to hold off Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan to maintain second, Allison was able to take the win by a relatively comfortable two car lengths. Meanwhile, Elliott was able to beat Earnhardt for second by mere inches. Alan Kulwicki, who felt about restrictor plate races about the same way Jeff Gordon feels about bootleg souvenirs, did manage a credible sixth that day.
The win at the Winston 500 that day put Davey Allison in position to claim the Winston Million by winning the next points race on the schedule, the World 600 at Charlotte. Davey had to feel good about his chances after having won at Daytona and Talladega. The Ford teams were on a roll and had won all nine races that season. Yes, for young Davey, the Winston Million had to seem a very attainable goal, but fate and the driver of a certain black Chevrolet were going to have a say in the matter.
To be continued…
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