50 Years of nascar racing ~ One Magical Season, Part 3 (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.
The media attention surrounding Davey Allison with that Million Dollars on the line at Darlington was intense, and of course some of the scribes bought up Clifford's recent death as a way of generating a human interest story. Many fans were hoping Allison could win the race, and dedicate the win to his brother.
Allison had a strong car, and led often, but just as there seemed to be a dark cloud over his season, there were threatening storm clouds over Darlington that day. Mark Martin had a bad effort in qualifying and ended up with a back straight pit stall as a result, but he seemed to have one of the strongest cars on the track. When he pitted under green to negate the disadvantage of that pit stall during yellow flag pit stops, the other leaders had their hand forced, despite the threatening weather. Most quickly followed suit to avoid having Mark open up too big a gap on his fresh tires. Two notable drivers did not. Darrell Waltrip, who had never won the Southern 500 in 18 career attempts, decided to gamble the weather was going to cause the race to end early. Bill Elliott was off the pit sequence, having had a tire equalize and thus having to duck into the pits for an unscheduled stop. Allison and Martin were working their way back to the front, and both DW and Elliott would have had to pit soon. Then the skies opened up, and NASCAR red flagged the event.
Because of the significance of the event, NASCAR delayed calling the race off for as long as possible, despite grim readings on the weather radar. It was hoped even if the race could not run its full length, the action could resume long enough to finish the pit stop cycle and give everyone a fair fight for the win. During that lengthy rain delay, fans watching on television were treated to one of the all time classic interviews of NASCAR drivers. Davey Allison and Darrell Waltrip were hanging out together waiting out the delay and each was asked what he thought the possibility was the race would resume. Looking up at the sky Darrell said that it looked like things were getting worse by the minute and NASCAR ought to call the race immediately, give him the trophy and let everyone hurry home to safety. Looking up at those same skies, Davey said he thought he saw a little bit of clearing just to the west and NASCAR ought to wait another hour or two before declaring the race official. When asked how much gas he had left in his car, in the event the racing did resume, DW just smiled and said "Oh, about a million dollars’ worth."
The Southern 500 was finally called official because of the weather, giving DW his first Southern 500 win, and costing Davey his last chance at the Winston Million. Elliott also benefited from the shortened race and claimed second to Allison's fifth, gaining another few points.
It must have been a relief for the Yates team their young driver that at least the media floodlight was off them again and they could return to the business at hand, winning a championship, at Richmond the following weekend.
Rusty Wallace was in the midst of a 34-race winless streak as the tour returned to Richmond, a track where he was always among the favorites. (Again, any similarities between 1992 and 1998 are strictly intentional.) An ill-timed caution flag just after he pitted put Rusty down a lap, but he was not to be denied, and made it up on the track. After a spirited battle with DW, another noted short track ace, Rusty took the lead, and held on with the tenacity of a bulldog to take the checkers. He gave credit for the win to his recently hired crew chief, Buddy Parrott.
The title contenders had an off night. Elliott struggled home in 14th, a lap off the pace, one position ahead of Alan Kulwicki. Once again misfortune ruined a race for Davey Allison. While he and Ernie Irvan were racing hard, Ernie got into the 28 car and sent Allison for a wild spin across the grassy infield of the track. NASCAR didn't throw a caution and Davey lost a couple laps. He would eventually finish 19th.
Alan Kulwicki had to be dreading the Winston Cup series return to Dover Downs after the horrid weekend he had suffered in the jaws of the Monster Mile in June. Once again he trashed a car in practice, but that seemed to steel Kulwicki's resolve. He took some measure of revenge on the Monster by winning the pole for the race in his back up car. But the game wasn't quite over. During the race, Alan tangled with Chad Little and totaled his car in the first turn. With only six races left in the season Alan was 278 points behind Elliott after that race. "Realistically this probably finishes us off." Kulwicki admitted. "I don't like to give up, but I know it will be hard to come back now."
Bill Elliott took command of the race late in the going and seemed poised to end a winless streak that dated back to March and the final stop of the Elliott express. With 25 laps to go he ducked into the pits for his final stop, and took on four tires and fuel. Ricky Rudd and the Hendrick crew made a desperate gamble and stopped for fuel only a lap later, returning to the action ahead of Elliott. With the fresh tires Elliott was narrowing the gap each and every lap, but he ran out of miles before he ran down Ricky, finishing less than a half second behind Rudd. Allison had also taken tires on his final stop and came home fourth. It seemed the points battle had become a two man race, and Elliott held a 154 point advantage as the teams packed up to head for Martinsville.
Rain postponed the Martinsville race until Monday, and then delayed the start over three hours on Monday as well. Disaster struck Elliott early in the race, when he suffered an uncharacteristic engine failure that left him next to last in the final run down. Allison was poised to take a huge bite out of the points lead when he got to racing with Rusty Wallace. Rusty got into him and sent Davey spinning. Later in the event Davey returned the favor, though he said it was because his brakes gave out. The frustration and tension were beginning to take their toll.
Of the three points leaders, only Kulwicki was able to capitalize on the other drivers' misfortunes with a fifth place finish.
Kyle Petty seemed to have the car to beat that day, but when Allison and Wallace tangled, Petty took to the grass to avoid the wreck. The ground was still saturated and Kyle got stuck in the mud. Geoff Bodine, driving for Bud Moore, was able to capitalize and win his first race of the season.
The points show down moved on to North Wilkesboro for the next event, and once again rain delayed the event until Monday. In one of those rare occurrences that almost defies belief, the entire 400-lap race at North Wilkesboro was run without a caution flag, and only one car failed to finish. The chief victim of the caution free pace was Bill Elliott, whose car was handling badly, and without any caution flag pit stops the team was unable to make any major adjustments. Elliott finished in 26th, eight laps behind the leaders. Allison's car was nothing to write home about either, and he finished three laps down in 11th, though that allowed him to make up a lot of points on Bill. Kulwicki finished 12th and also took a nice bite out of Elliott's once seemingly insurmountable points lead.
For the second week in a row Geoff Bodine won a race held on Monday. He could be excused for doing a rain dance every Sunday after that. The win also allowed Ford to lock the Manufacturer's title, the first time the Blue Oval Boys had been able to claim that honor since 1969.
For Elliott the race had to be frustrating, but at least he could take solace the Fall Short Track stint was over, and the series returned to the Superspeedways where Elliott was much more comfortable for the final four races of the year.
Junior Johnson was livid that the team was failing Bill so badly in that stretch run. He entered a third car, driven by Hut Stricklin, at the Charlotte race, to give Bill a little insurance. It didn't appear like Bill was going to need the help though. He was one the fastest cars on the track, while Davey Allison was suffering miserable handling problems that dropped him eight laps off the pace. It seemed Elliott was ready to strike the death blow that afternoon. It was not to be. Late in the race, a sway bar mount broke on the rear of the 11 car, and from that point on the car was undriveable. Stricklin was told to park his car as well, but Bill's 30th place finish, combined with Kulwicki coming home second and Allison struggling to a 19th place finish left the drive to the title wide open. In fact even Mark Martin, who won the race that day, moved himself into a position where he had at least a mathematical shot at taking the championship.
With the way the 28 and 11 teams had been struggling that month, anything seemed possible.
The series returned to Rockingham and Bill Elliott returned to form. The team had adopted a conservative strategy in the wake of the month long disaster, and while Elliott seemed to have a car to contest for the win, he chose to drive a safe race, remaining in the top five instead. The decision was made easier by Allison and Kulwicki once again having handling problems and struggling along laps off the pace. His fourth place finish was Elliott's first since the Southern 500. Kulwicki ended up 12th and seemed to acknowledge everyone but Bill was battling for second in the championship. Larry McReynolds was despondent and said of Elliott, "All he has to do is ride it out, and the championship is his."
Kyle Petty, who had run strong in a lot of races that year only to fade at the end, finally managed to run fast for an entire race, and take the win. The win gave Petty a mathematical chance at the Winston Cup title as well, giving fans of the King hope his boy would win the championship in Richard's last year as a driver.
For Elliott and Junior Johnson it seemed the title was theirs for the picking, but things went horribly wrong at Phoenix, a track Bill normally did well at. Early in the race the engine in Bill's car dropped a cylinder and signaled its imminent demise in a huge cloud of white smoke. While the engine was mortally wounded, it didn't let go all together, forcing Elliott to spend a frustrating afternoon slowly circling the track, watching Allison and Kulwicki zip by time after time. The strategy did allow Bill to finish 31st in a 42 car field.
Pole sitter Rusty Wallace seemed to have the car to beat, until electrical problems forced him to the pits for lengthy repairs while Rusty made up new curse words. Mark Martin seemed intent on keeping his slim title hopes alive and drove his heart out. A caution flag flew after Martin and Kulwicki had already pitted, allowing Davey Allison to take a leisurely yellow flag pit stop and return to the track with the lead. He would go on to not only win the race, but take the lead in the points hunt going into the season finale. Kulwicki's fourth place finish was good enough to lift him to second place in the points hunt, and Elliott's ailing engine dropped him from first to third in the Winston Cup chase. Allison had a thirty point lead over Kulwicki, while Elliott was ten points in back of Alan. The championship would be decided at the season finale in Atlanta.
Nor was winning the Phoenix race Davey Allison's only brush with good fortune that week. In an eerie coincidence for those of you who know how his life ended, Allison had experienced problems with his personal plane on the way to the track. Flying alone was one of the few places Davey could be alone with his thoughts away from the intense media scrutiny surrounding the tight points battle. While in the air en route to Phoenix, the cabin of the plane began filling with smoke. Davey was able to make an emergency landing, where it was determined a piece of insulation falling against the heating system was the source of that smoke. At the same time Davey saw that one engine of his plane had sprung a major oil leak, and had it not been for the emergency landing after the cabin filled with smoke, that engine may very well have failed, leading to a much more serious problem in the air.
When the Winston Cup tour reached the season finale at Atlanta, Davey Allison seemed to be in good shape. He needed only to finish 5th or better to claim the title, even if Kulwicki won the race and led the most laps. If Allison faltered, Kulwicki and Elliott were both within striking distance, and would be in a dog fight of their own for the title. In a way, the advantage could be said to have been theirs as well. Elliott and Kulwicki had no choice but to do what they did best; run hard, gunning for a victory to grab every possible point, and let the chips fortune dealt fall where they were. If all three of the points leaders were to falter early, three other drivers; Mark Martin, Harry Gant, and Kyle Petty, also had a slim chance to snatch the title.
The media coverage was about evenly split between the fantastic points battle, and another driver running 25th in the points. That driver was of course Richard Petty, and the Atlanta season finale would mark his last turn at the wheel of a Winston Cup car.
Lost as a footnote in all the hubbub, was a skinny young man from Indiana with a really cheesy mustache, and his crew chief, a modified driver from up North whose head injuries had forced him to retire. That young man was starting his first Winston Cup race, on the same day that the King was to drive his last. His name was, of course, Jeff Gordon, and the crew chief was Ray Evernham. Jeff qualified 21st and finished 31st that afternoon after wrecking. A couple years down the road he was due to get a lot more attention at the Atlanta season finales.
It was one of those rare races where you wished all three title contenders could win the prize. Davey had been through so much that year and showed awe inspiring reserves of human spirit. Bill was arguably NASCAR's favorite driver. Alan Kulwicki was a self made man, who had started with little, and faced many seemingly insurmountable obstacles head on to achieve his surprising place amidst the trio.
In somewhat of a surprise, Rick Mast grabbed the pole for the race. None of the three title contenders did exceptionally well in qualifying with Elliott starting 11th, Kulwicki 14th, and Allison 17th. The pressure increased another notch.
When the green flag dropped all three of those drivers began a relentless charge to the front, and on lap 62 Elliott took the lead to grab those five valuable bonus points. But Davey was doing exactly what he needed to do, running in the top five.
The King's last run had an unhappy twist of fate. On lap 95 Darrell Waltrip blew an engine, and oiled down the track. Petty couldn't get stopped and slammed in DW. The 43 car ignited in flames, but the King calmly drove to the nearest fire truck, where he had to remind the rescue crew that dashed towards him, that a fire extinguisher would come in pretty handy. The STP Pontiac was towed back to the garage area. There was no real point in trying to get the car back out on the track. It wasn't like Richard was in a points battle, and the repairs were going to take a long time. But the King had his men start getting the car at least able to roll. He was determined to finish his last Winston Cup race.
Mark Martin was the first of the possible title contenders to lose his chance. A blown engine on lap 160 left Mark 32nd that day, and 6th in the final points run down.
Dale Earnhardt was having yet another terrible day, with an ill handling car, well down on horsepower. He would finish 26th that day, and 12th in the final points run down, tying his worst points finish since he had started racing Winston Cup full time.
The entire nature of the race changed on lap 254. Davey Allison was still in the top five, and seemed able to maintain that position as the laps left to run clicked off. That's when Ernie Irvan, already laps down, lost control, hit the wall, and swept up Davey's black Ford on the rebound. The 28 car was heavily damaged, and while it would return to the race, it would be over 40 laps off the pace. Allison's once bright title hopes rested on both Bill and Alan suffering similar fates, and Elliott was leading the race at that point.
In Alan Kulwicki's pit, his crew chief Paul Andrews was calculating furiously away. Alan's car was strong, but head to head with Bill, it seemed the 11 car had the advantage. Both drivers had led a lap to collect the five bonus points. The five bonus points for leading the most laps were going to be crucial with only a ten point separation between the two drivers going into the event. By Andrew's calculations if Alan got the five points for leading the most laps he would take the title, even if Bill won and Alan finished second. As such he had Kulwicki stay out on the track an extra lap when a caution flew, rather than diving into the pits with the rest of the leaders. That single lap was going to determine the 1992 Winston Cup championship. It was even closer than that however. At one point Alan and Bill were racing for the stripe on what seemed just another lap. Alan edged Bill by mere inches to the start/finish line to get credit for leading that lap, before Elliott made the pass. Had Bill led that lap, the outcome would have been different.
Kulwicki received the good news that he had clinched the five bonus points for leading the most laps shortly thereafter. But as if the tension of the points battle needed any more fuel added to the fire, there was bad news for Kulwicki after his final pit stop as well. Alan had left the pits so quickly the gas man hadn't been able to get the car entirely full of fuel. Andrew's radioed the bad news to Alan they might not have enough fuel to go the distance and urged him to conserve gas. A long stunned silence was the only reply on the radio. Finally Kulwicki asked Andrews to repeat what he had said, as if unable to believe it. Andrews explained what had happened. After another long silence Alan simply asked they recalculate the lap totals to be certain that he could still win the championship by finishing second to Bill.
Alan was in the unenviable position of having to break off combat with Elliott for the win, and ease up a bit to save gas, without slowing down enough to allow any of the other lead laps cars to catch him. Even a splash and go in the final laps would cost him enough positions the championship would be lost, with Elliott holding determinedly to the lead. Elliott was just doing what came naturally, driving his heart out, gunning for the win.
Bill did what he could. He won the Hooters 500 (ironically sponsored by the company that backed Alan) by over an 8-second margin to second place Kulwicki. Bill won the battle, but Alan won the war and became the 1992 Winston Cup champion.
In those closing laps, even as exciting as the battle was, most eyes had focused on another car, barely crawling around the track. Richard Petty had bought the mangled remnants of the 43 car back out onto the track so he would be officially credited with finishing his last race. The car had been ready to go before that, but sportsman that he was, Richard hadn't wanted to go out there until those final couple laps, lest he accidentally get in the way of the two drivers battling for the championship, and ruin one of their chances. The applause was deafening as Richard returned to the track, and was echoed in living rooms, taverns, at NASCAR parties, and any place else race fans were gathered, from sea to shining sea.
Even after the race, Alan seemed unable to believe he had won the event. He radioed quietly to Paul and asked "Did we win it?" The answer came back an enthusiastic yes. Alan let Bill take the honor due him in a victory lap, then spun his own car around to do a reverse lap of the track to celebrate his championship. As the story goes, Alan had done the "Polish Victory Lap" after his first win at Phoenix. A NASCAR official had told him, "Cute stunt, Alan. Don't ever do it again." Kulwicki replied he would hold off on doing another until he won a championship. The official sort of smiled at the relatively unknown driver running on a shoe string budget, and told Alan, "Yeah, all right, Alan. When you win a championship."
After Alan had had his turn acknowledging the cheers of the crowd and pulled into the pits to face the media, one final driver took to the track for his last laps behind the wheel of a stock car. As The King drove slowly around the track, misty eyed and waving to his loyal subjects, the applause seemed to grow ever louder. It was an appropriate way to celebrate the finish of what was arguably the best season of NASCAR racing in the modern era, and without a doubt, the most legendary career of any driver, the King, who had been with NASCAR all those years before at their first race on a dirt track in Charlotte.
AFTERMATH: As we know from history, Alan Kulwicki would never have the chance to defend his title, and Davey Allison never had the chance to win his. Both would die during tragic aircraft accidents in 1993. Bill Elliott was a heavy favorite for the championship going into 1993, but for reasons that remain inexplicable, the Johnson/Elliott combination never really seemed to fire on all 8 after the 1992 campaign, and Elliott would never again be a serious contender at the season finale at Atlanta. That fellow who finished 12th in the points after the most frustrating year of his career, Dale Earnhardt, stormed back to take the next two Winston Cup championships, to tie the King's record of seven. He seemed poised to break that record, but that young kid from Indiana who had such an inauspicious debut at the 1992 season finale, was going to have something to say about that in 1995.
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