50 Years of nascar racing ~ ONe Magical Season, Part 2 (Post 94)
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.
Ford had won all nine Winston Cup events as the series arrived at Charlotte for the World 600, and things went as expected, with Bill Elliott grabbing the pole for that race. But even before the race, things had gone badly for Davey Allison, who was in line to claim the Winston Million.
Allison, who had won the 1991 running of the Winston in convincing fashion, once again earned the pole for the event, run that year under the lights. He won the first 30 lap segment easily, after which the field was inverted. Kyle Petty won the next segment and thus started on the pole for the frantic ten lap shootout to the big check. Kyle led until Darrell Waltrip spun, bringing out a caution. When the green flag dropped again with two laps left to go, Dale Earnhardt dove so low he put two wheels in the grass to get around Kyle. Earnhardt led at the white flag with Kyle behind him, trying desperately to retake the lead. The two charged out of turn three, with Kyle trying to go low to get inside of Dale, and Earnhardt ducking low to block the move. They came out of the final corner inches apart, and Dale kept trying to go lower to block Kyle. Eventually both lost control, and went flying back up across the track. Earnhardt hit the wall and never finished the race. Kyle was all over the track trying to catch his out of control car, as Davey, who had been in third waiting for the two to wreck, took advantage and grabbed the lead. As he crossed the start finish line, though, Petty's out of control Pontiac slammed into Allison, putting him hard into the wall, and knocking him out cold. Davey never arrived in victory lane. He had to be cut out of the wreckage and flown to the hospital where he was diagnosed as having a nasty concussion, a bruised lung, and massive bruising to his legs that had Davey hobbling for some time. Even worse, his favorite car, 007, the one he had been planning to race for the Winston Million the next weekend, was destroyed. (Robert Yates later said the wreck scared him so badly he had the entire car crushed so he'd never have to see it again.)
Things didn't go well for the Fords, right from the start of the World 600. Elliott experienced engine problems early and had to limp his car around the track as best as he could for the rest of the evening. In somewhat of a surprise, three GM teams asserted themselves to the front, Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan in Chevys and Kyle Petty aboard a Pontiac. Kyle and Ernie opened up a little distance between themselves and Earnhardt and looked ready to make it a two man race as the final round of pit stops began. Both Kyle and Ernie had flawless pit stops, and headed back out onto the track. Then Dale Earnhardt came charging into the pits, seemingly heedless of the pit road speed limit, locked up all four tires in clouds of smoke and slithered sideways into his pit stall. He left about as quickly. Though the stop itself was no faster, somehow Dale made up his three second deficit during that pit stop, but NASCAR issued no penalty for speeding on pit road. Earnhardt went on to win his first race of the season. A lot of other angry drivers and fans said NASCAR played favorites with Dale Earnhardt because he was their "poster boy". For newer fans, hopefully you are beginning to sense, the more things change the more they stay the same. Only the names seem to change; the stories remain the same. Davey Allison, who probably shouldn't even have been in that car, managed fourth place, good enough to keep his points lead, but three positions shy of the million dollar bonus. He would have to wait until September's Southern 500 to have his next chance at the big prize.
Alan Kulwicki was well noted for bringing his cars home in one piece, a trademark of the owner/driver who counted every penny he spent. At the next race on the schedule, Dover, Alan wiped out two Thunderbirds in practice, and had to send a truck to pick up a third car from the shop just to qualify. In fact, that year Alan only damaged four cars badly enough they needed entire new clips (The frame sections behind or in front of the roll cage assembly that surrounds the driver.) All four of those cars were damaged at Dover. That race saw a lot of wrecks caused by a sealer that the Dover Downs management put down to try to save their decaying asphalt. (Again, does this sound familiar for a one mile track up North?) It was a last ditch attempt before Dover changed over to a concrete surface.
The race at Dover had a rather odd outcome. Davey Allison and Harry Gant made hard contact on pit road, damaging both cars. Davey's day was downhill from there, and he was also penalized for speeding on pit road. In light of the circumstances at Charlotte that allowed Dale Earnhardt to win, Davey was livid. A number of top contending cars fell laps off the pace, after an untimely caution flag caught them a lap down in the middle of the pit stop sequence. In the end, it was a battle between Harry Gant and Darrell Waltrip, both of whom decided to roll the dice and stretch their fuel mileage to forego a late pit stop. Dale Earnhardt was poised to capitalize if they both ran out of gas. Darrell did indeed run out of fuel. So did Harry Gant, but it was on the last lap and he was able to coast back to the checkers without giving up the lead.
That week the NASCAR community was saddened by the loss of the organization's founder, Bill France Senior. France, who had been in poor health for a number of years, passed away the morning of the Sonoma event. Like a modern day Moses, he had led his organization right to the brink of the promised land, and because of his vision he could see the good things that lay ahead, but did not cross the river himself.
Home state native Ernie Irvan had all challengers covered at Sonoma that day. He won rather easily despite being black flagged once for jumping a start. Bill Elliott managed a fifth place finish to capitalize on Davey Allison having gone off course and dropping to 28th place in the final run down. The points race was tightening up. Meanwhile, quietly back in fifth place in the points sat Alan Kulwicki.
Pocono was next on the 1992 schedule, and that year two notable drivers were trying something new at the oddly shaped track. Both Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki decided to gear their cars, so they shifted back and forth from third to fourth on the tri-oval to allow for extra speed without over-revving the engines on Pocono's long straight-aways. As you might guess, since all the teams use that trick now, the strategy worked splendidly, and Kulwicki won his second race of the season that day, after Martin's run was foiled by a long pit stop, dropping him to second. Elliott, the best of the "shiftless" bunch, came home third. Davey Allison had a strong run going until he too encountered trouble in the pits, relegating him to a fifth place finish. The sound of Dale Earnhardt's engine popping three quarters of the way into the race, not only dropped him to 28th that day, but also from second to fifth in the points, and it signaled the beginning of the end for his 1992 season, which would suddenly go horribly wrong as well.
Davey Allison had the dominant car at the tour's next stop, Michigan. His pit crew, which may have cost him the race at Pocono, made atonement by knocking off flawless stops all day. Once again Junior tried to gamble, leaving Bill Elliott out on the track after all the other leaders pitted. The strategy backfired when Bill ran out of gas and lost a lap, on a track where he usually dominated.
The 1992 Firecracker 400 held special significance, as it would be the last time that Richard Petty would ever race at Daytona, a track that he had made nearly synonymous with his name. All week there were special events, awards and ceremonies, and no less a dignitary than President Bush was on hand to see Richard run his last race at Daytona. In a carefully orchestrated move (The one time I will admit NASCAR scripted part of a race) Richard Petty was allowed to lead the first five laps, before all the other drivers began to race in earnest. All the hoopla of that week, and a hot day took its toll on the King, who had to call on a relief driver on lap 82. When no one could be found who fit in the car, the STP Pontiac was parked, to the great disappointment of the fans. Ernie Irvan saved his car all day until it mattered, then pulled the trigger late in the race to edge out Sterling Marlin by a couple of car lengths. Bill Elliott managed fifth to whittle away some more of Davey Allison's points lead, when Davey came home tenth.
The series returned to Pocono that July with Davey Allison having led the points since winning the Daytona 500. His return trip to the Poconos started out well with Davey claiming the pole, and with all that Robert Yates horsepower under the hood Davey had to be considered a favorite that day. After leading early and often, yet another SNAFU in the pits cost Davey a lot of track position during a caution flag pit stop. Davey was mired well back in the pack but there were enough laps left in the race , and he had enough car, he could have made up the distance. It was not to be. After the green flag dropped Davey and Darrel Waltrip were charging for the front, when they aimed their cars at the same piece of open real estate. Davey got the worst of it. The black 28 car got sideways, then began a series of sickening end over end rolls, shedding parts down the short chute and at one point almost landing on top of a safety truck, before the Ford came down hard on the guard rail. It was one of the most frightening wrecks in Winston Cup history, and it seemed impossible Davey could have survived. While Allison did survive the horrendous wreck, he broke his right arm and wrist, and a collarbone, and fractured his skull. It was the fourth time the thin driver from Alabama had to be admitted to a hospital after a wreck, but it was the first time that Davey lost the points lead. Despite a lackluster 13th place finish, Bill Elliott took that lead. Darrell Waltrip went on to win the race, but his first words in Victory Lane were, "How's Davey?" Allison never bore any ill will towards Darrell, despite the severity of his injuries. He said both drivers were at fault in a momentary miscalculation, "one of them racing deals."
Incredibly Davey started the next race at Talladega, and drove six laps before handing the car over to Bobby Hillin, and crossing his fingers. Allison spent the rest of the day in the Texaco suite coaching his relief driver over the radio. Ernie Irvan lost a lap after being penalized for speeding on pit road, but a fan who tossed a beer can out on the track bought out a caution that got Ernie back onto the tail end of the lead lap. Irvan made the most of that opportunity and fought his way to the front. In the end, Irvan got a crucial assist from fellow GM driver Ricky Rudd, while the Fords in the lead pack commenced to fighting among themselves for position and let Ernie get away. Coming in third that day in his relief role for Allison was Bobby Hillin. Coupled with Elliott's fifth place finish, Davey actually took back the points lead by a single point, while sitting in the Texaco suite.
But things would not go so well for Davey at the next race, Watkins Glen. Obviously as badly hurt as he was, there was no way Allison could drive a complete race on a road course. Robert Yates turned to noted road course ace Dorsey Schroeder to take the wheel of the 28 in a relief role.
The weather was terrible that year at the Glen, and the race was delayed more than three hours at the start, then run under threatening skies that had the teams knowing the event would probably not go its full length. Kyle Petty had a strong car, but was forced to the pits after waiting as long as he could with rain once again threatening. Dick Trickle took the lead by not getting fresh tires on his stop, and it seemed the rain might come in time to give Dick the win. It wasn't to be. The race resumed under green just long enough to allow Kyle to take advantage of his fresh tires to go back into the lead, at which point the rain returned. Four laps were run under caution and the race was finally called official. Schroeder did a fine job driving for Allison, until his inexperience with a heavy Winston Cup car caused him to brake too late during a pit stop and sail right past his stall. Dorsey had to go back out on the track, complete another lap and try again. He wound up 20th, handing the points lead back to Elliott, who could only manage 14th that day.
The seesaw battle for the championship was anyone's to win, and things were looking better for Davey Allison. Incredibly, less than a month after his horrendous wreck at Pocono, Allison was cleared to drive the schedule's next race at Michigan without relief help. Considering he had won on the track earlier that season, Davey looked to be in good position to reassert himself in the title hunt. Yes, things were looking better for Davey. Little did he know what a cruel hand fate would deal him at Michigan that summer.
It was Friday afternoon at Michigan, and the Winston Cup regulars were hanging out in the garage, while their Busch series counterparts were on the track practicing for the next day's race. Then there was the sound of screeching tires followed quickly by the sound of sheetmetal shredding into one of Michigan's unyielding outer walls. All conversation stopped as people turned to see who had crashed, and if that driver was all right. The driver was Davey Allison's younger brother, Clifford, and he was far from all right. Davey tried to reach the car even as rescue crews began cutting away the roof, but was restrained by track officials, who told him he best get to the hospital. Clifford was helicoptered to the hospital, while Davey and his wife Liz drove. By the time they reached the hospital they were informed Clifford had died en route.
Robert Yates told Davey if he needed to get home to mourn his brother, the 28 team would line up a relief driver. He even suggested that might be the right course of action. But for Davey there was no question whether he would race at not. Heartbroken, and body still badly battered, he started that race Sunday.
Just as he had at Dover, Harry Gant used a fuel strategy to take the win that day. During the final caution flag, Gant came in and got four tires and fuel, then stopped again just before the green flag dropped to top off the tank. The rest of the field needed to make one more pit stop, allowing Harry to take the win by a comfortable five seconds over Darrell Waltrip. Elliott finished third, and Davey Allison bought the 28 car home fifth. Because he had never led a lap, and Elliott had led the most laps that day, Allison fell another 20 points behind his rival. A 20 point drop in the standings pales by significance to the loss of a brother. Immediately after the race, Davey left the track to fly home and be with his family, talking only briefly with the press.
From Michigan the series returned to Bristol, but there was a new twist to Thunder Valley for that event. The high banked oval was notorious for having its track surface come apart under racing conditions, so the track management tried something new. The track was re-surfaced in concrete. Almost to a man, the drivers despised the track the first time they ran on it, saying it was too bumpy, and slick.
During the race many drivers did find that a steeply banked concrete racing surface was a bit unforgiving. Chief amongst them was Davey Allison, who was running in the top five and trying to move forward, when the back end of the 28 car got away from him, and Davey backed hard into the wall winding up 30th in a 32 car field. Elliott and Kulwicki struggled a bit as well, finishing a lap off the pace, but still managing a sixth and fifth place finish respectively. The points race was tightening up, and Kulwicki in third was actually closer to overtaking Allison then Davey was to grabbing the point back from Bill.
The acknowledged master of Bristol was Darrell Waltrip, who had 11 career wins at the track going into that event. The new surface didn't seem to bother him much, and Waltrip dominated the latter half of the race. Asked what he thought about the new track surface, DW just grinned, feigned surprise and asked; "They resurfaced it? I didn't even notice."
For Davey Allison and the 28 team there was no time to dwell on the Bristol disaster. An eventful and occasionally tragic summer was winding down. The next race on the schedule was the Southern 500 at Darlington, and it would be Allison's last chance to claim the Winston Million. Robert Yates racing had every intention of giving Davey the car he needed to win, and Allison was a master of the superspeedways. Besides the dyno operator, Larry McReynolds, and the chassis specialists, Yates should have hired a good meteorologist too.
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