#9 - The Greatest Race Ever
(Editor’s Note) In 1997 - 1998, Matt McLaughlin penned a special Anthology of historical pieces in honor of the 50th Anniversary of NASCAR entitled "50 Years of NASCAR Racing." Matt has entrusted the entire collection, minus one or two that were misfiled back then and cannot be salvaged, to my tender, loving care.
As NASCAR turns 70, the Anthology itself will celebrate a 20th anniversary through 2018, and will run again here on Race Fans Forever. As before, there is no record of which pieces came first, so it will appear in the sequence presented earlier. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two.
As always, many thanks to Matt, and God bless you my friend. ~PattyKay
Trying to select the greatest race ever run in NASCAR is like trying to pick the prettiest woman who ever lived. No matter what your choice, it's unlikely most people will agree with you. But I'll go out on a limb and cast my vote for the season finale of the 1992 season, run on November 15th of that year at Atlanta.
As the date approached there was a lot of media attention focused on the race because it was the last event the King, Richard Petty, would drive in. For longtime fans of the sport, it was hard to accept that the next year when the 1993 season kicked off at Daytona, Richard would not be aboard the familiar 43 car.
Equally important was that the points championship for the year was very much up in the air. While there were six drivers with a mathematical shot at the championship, realistically there were three title contenders to keep an eye on, and they were all very different men, driving for very different teams. Bill Elliott, the perennial fan favorite and winner of 38 races to that point, had come out of the blocks hard in 1992. After getting caught up in a wreck while leading the Daytona 500, the Elliott express had left the station and he had won the next four events in a row. Throughout the early and middle parts of the season Elliot just kept right on trucking and with his championship rivals all suffering various sorts of ill fortune, he built up what seemed an insurmountable lead. But late in the season Bill's year fell apart, culminating with a blown engine at Phoenix that dropped him to third in the point standings, 10 points behind Alan Kulwicki and 40 behind Davey Allison. Elliott was driving for NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, who knew a thing or two about winning the Winston Cup, having won six of them. There was no doubt the Budweiser Ford was going to be loaded for bear. Alan Kulwicki was a relative newcomer to the sport, with just five wins to his credit. A Wisconsin native, he was a relative rarity at that point... an owner/driver... who had turned down numerous offers to drive for top teams, including Junior Johnson's, to blaze his own trail. He had seemed hopelessly behind after a wreck at the fall race at Dover, but had come on strong as of late. The odds-on favorite going into the event was Davey Allison, who only needed to finish fifth to clinch the title. It seemed Allison was due some good luck after a nightmarish season. After winning the Daytona 500, Allison had been involved in three major wrecks that required hospitalization, including a frightening tumble at Pocono that had shattered his arm. Even worse, his brother Clifford had been killed that year while practicing for a Busch race at Michigan, the latest tragedy to strike the star crossed Allison family. Allison was driving for Robert Yates Racing, which was just beginning to make its mark on the scene as a major player.
Other favorites that day included Dale Earnhardt, who had watched his season fall to pieces and was in the unfamiliar position of being hopelessly out of contention for the title, mired in 12th place in the points. Dale always ran well at Atlanta and had something to prove. Another crowd favorite was "Handsome Harry" Gant, holding down fourth place in the points. The other two dark horses that day were Kyle Petty, heir to the King's throne, and Mark Martin.
The surprise pole winner for the event was Rick Mast. All three of the title contenders suffered uncharacteristically poor qualifying efforts, with Elliott starting 11th, Kulwicki 14th, and Davey going off 17th. The Atlanta Motor Speedway was packed to the rafters and at home fans of all three drivers were chewing their nails and pacing the floor.
Right from the drop of the green flag, Elliott and Kulwicki showed they were there to race and began a determined charge to the front, with Elliot taking the lead for the first time on lap 62, grabbing five bonus points for leading a lap. Kulwicki stayed out on the track for one extra lap under caution and got his five points for leading as well. But Davey Allison was running strong as well, and helped himself to five bonus points on lap 86 by taking the lead. Disaster struck the King on lap 95. Dick Trickle and Kenny Schrader wrecked, and Richard plowed into the back of Darrell Waltrip when Darrell jumped on the brakes to avoid them. The impact destroyed the nose of the 43 car, ruptured an oil line, and set the car ablaze. Seasoned veteran that he was, Petty calmly drove to the nearest fire truck to have the fire put out. As Richard related it to the press later, "I think all those cats wanted was an autograph because none of them bought a fire extinguisher. I had to holler at them to grab one." The STP crew pushed their wounded Pontiac back to the garage. Late in the race Richard Petty would return to the track, his car lacking any front sheet-metal and with burn marks down both sides, hopelessly out of contention. But the appreciative crowd gave what may have been the loudest applause in the history of the sport to welcome Petty back to the track, a roar so loud they may very well have heard it echoing in Charlotte where the King had won his first race all those years before.
Tragedy struck Davey Allison once again in the form of the yellow number four car piloted by Ernie Irvan on lap 253. Irvan cut down a tire and spun, putting Allison's Thunderbird hard into the wall, while Davey was running fifth, exactly where he needed to be. Forcing a smile, but obviously close to tears, Davey told reporters, “That’s the way it goes sometimes." It was ironic, both that Irvan also took out Bill Elliott at the Daytona 500 or there might not have been such a close title race, and that he would fill the seat of the number 28 car before the end of the next season.
With Allison out of the race, all bets were off. Kulwicki was leading and Bill Elliott was second, and suddenly they were both racing for the championship. And race they did, lap after lap, nose to tail, flirting with disaster and courting glory in a pair of fleet Fords. Other than one lap Terry Labonte led under caution when Kulwicki and Elliot were in the pits, either Bill or Alan led every lap of the remainder of the race.
And with all that drama going on, on the track, Paul Andrews, Kulwicki's crew chief was quietly using a pocket calculator in the pits. He was figuring out how many laps Alan needed to lead to get the five bonus points for leading the most laps, and having Kulwicki stay on the track under caution an extra few laps each time the yellow flag waved to draw closer to that magic number.
With 13 laps to go Bill Elliott roared into the lead and held onto it with the tenacity of a terrier with a rat in his jaws. Elliott took the checkered flag a tick over eight seconds ahead of Kulwicki. But while Bill had won the battle, Kulwicki won the war and the championship. He had led exactly one more lap than Elliott and got those five bonus points. He won the title by a mere ten points. It seemed unbelievable, but Paul Andrews had outfoxed Junior Johnson. Elliott could very easily have stayed out one more lap under the final caution while leading, and taken those five points himself. Had that been the case, the points chase would have ended in a tie and Elliott would have been champion based on having won more races that year. The result was even closer than that. On lap 80, Alan had taken the lead from Elliott crossing the line a mere six inches ahead of his rival. Had Elliott managed to stay seven inches ahead of Alan on that lap he would have been champion. After 29 events and nine months of racing, the Winston Cup championship came down to a matter of inches. And no matter who their favorite driver might have been, the fans were treated to the greatest race in the history of NASCAR that fall afternoon in Atlanta.
AFTERMATH…. Bill Elliott was as gracious in defeat as he was in victory, one of the reasons he keeps taking those most popular driver awards. At the awards banquet, Alan Kulwicki promised he would be the best champion he knew how, but of course he never really had a chance to show us all, as he would die tragically in an aircraft accident the following spring. If fate had been cruel to Davey Allison in 1992, it dealt even worse cards to him in 1993 and Davey would die in a helicopter crash the next year as well. While I was pulling for Bill that November day I was happy to see Alan get his title... the little guy beating the long odds. And along with the rest of NASCAR fans, I mourned the passing of the two championship caliber drivers and human beings the next year. Bill Elliott would return to the Junior Johnson team in 1993, but 1992 was Junior's swan song as a car owner. 1993 started a downhill slide that wound up with Junior quitting the sport at the end of the 1995 season. And I'd guess it will be a long time until any of us see such an exciting title race again. As a footnote, a skinny little wisp of a kid with a cheesy mustache drove a third Rick Hendrick car that day in his first Winston Cup start. Jeff Gordon crashed and finished 31st. The King retired and Jeff Gordon made his debut. Perhaps that's somehow fitting.
*Matt can no longer field comments or email at Race Fans Forever. If you have comments or questions, please leave them below and I’ll do my best to supply answers. ~PattyKay Lilley, Senior Editor.