You have to love it. Somewhere way back in the recesses of the computer room of your mind is that little switch. It’s a simple switch with two positions: Yes and No. Right underneath of the switch, just like all the others, is a sign that reads out what it does, just like in the Bat Cave. This switch says, “Are You A Race Fan,” and either you are, or you are not.
If that switch is in the “Yes” position, you had to love what you saw on Sunday, unless you are a huge Denny Hamlin fan or don’t care for Tony Stewart. If either of those scenarios is the case, suspend your frustration and put two other drivers in their same positions and see how you feel about it then.
The finish of Sunday’s Toyota SaveMart 350 is one of the reasons that the Road Courses are NASCAR’s new Short Track. We’re NASCAR fans…sometimes we like to see the cars run into each other every once and again, and then keep going instead of falling apart or both having to pit, or in some cases, one turning into half the field while the other goes sailing through the air and landing on its roof in the tri-oval before slamming into the wall upside down and flinging debris out into the fan seats. There was plenty of excitement on Sunday without the Days Of Thunder drama.
As NASCAR fans though, we don’t really get to see last laps like that all of the time, so we ought to truly embrace them and enjoy them when we do. Finishes like yesterday, with two lead changes, don’t always happen, but they have happened, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of them.
· I’m guessing my first “really close finish” was the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan. Just a few laps remained when a caution came out. Dale Jarrett grabbed two tires, and Davey Allison took four. Allison restarted a few spots back and when the race went back to green, Jarrett held the lead as Allison made his way back to the front. Jarrett led lap 198, Allison led 199, and then Jarrett led lap 200 to get his first career win. This was actually before electronic scoring was implemented in 1993, and the margin of victory was listed as “8 inches”.
· Then there was 2001 at Atlanta, a story every Dale Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick fan knows well, and the day we were introduced to a Chocolate Myers that not a lot of folks on our side of the fence knew. Harvick and Gordon, Gordon and Harvick, battling it out, reminiscent of the same battle Earnhardt had with Bobby Labonte a year before. Once again, the Childress prepared car would prevail, this time right next to Jeff Gordon in a photo finish, and Kevin Harvick would score his first career win.
· I’ll save the best for last, but this one was good, too. In 2004, it was unfortunately the final race at Rockingham, and as the laps were winding down, it was Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth duking it out for the victory, with Jamie McMurray looking on as a very interested spectator in third. With 7 to go, Kahne was the bulldog and Kenseth’s bumper was the ham bone. As the laps ticked off and the white flag flew, Kenseth still held the lead. Coming to the flag that pays all the money however, Kahne kept up the momentum and dipped under Kenseth and the two went side by side like dates in the Homecoming Court. Kenseth would keep the crown, but by a narrow hundredth-of-a-second margin.
· One more. The 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington. Ricky Craven. Kurt Busch. Epic battle. I can’t do it justice. Whether you saw it or not, do yourself a favor and go watch it again on Youtube. Craven pulls alongside after dogging Busch for a few laps, and as they come into three and out of four and down the front stretch to the line, it’s slam, bam, Monster Jam, and Craven takes the win by a ridiculous TWO-THOUSANDTHS of a second.
Just as in all of these races, there is only one winner. And in my eyes, when it comes to last laps, there’s one clear winner. It’s the 1992 Winston, billed as One Hot Night, and it was….
(Author’s Note: As I wrote in a column a few years ago entitled “One Hot Night,” this is my recap of the events of the evening…)
The race would be run in three segments in 1992. The first segment was 30 laps, followed by another 30 laps segment, and ultimately a ten lap shootout to determine the winner. Allison, in his famed car dubbed “007”, would lead the entire first segment, making him completely unstoppable in the last 100 laps run in the All Star Race, and a favorite to win the event for a second consecutive year, a feat not yet achieved by any driver.
A twist, however, was added to the race that year. The fans were allowed to vote whether they would like to see an inversion of the field or not, and the announcement would come between the first and second segments. Always willing to witness faster cars in the rear needing to catch up to the slower cars up front, the fans did indeed vote for the inversion. This sent opening segment winner Allison to the rear of the field, and put Geoff Bodine, who some had accused of lying back in strategy, at the front for the second segment.
When the green flag flew, it seemed as if everyone’s suspicions of Bodine may have been accurate. The Chemung driver led the first seven laps after the restart. Kyle Petty would hear nothing of that, however, and after passing his father, set his sights on Bodine. Once Petty was in the lead, no one could touch him, and he would go on to win the second segment.
Now, with only ten laps of racing remaining, the teams and drivers would regroup for the restart to determine who would take home the prize. Petty lined up as the leader, Ernie Irvan was set to his outside in second place, and Dale Earnhardt was in third. In the second segment, Davey Allison had managed to move his way from the rear of the field up to sixth place.
When the green flag flew to signal the start of the third and final segment, it was Earnhardt who would make his presence known. After working his way past Irvan, he focused on Petty and the lead, but Petty had worked his way out to a big one. On the third lap of the segment, Darrell Waltrip was sent spinning, which brought out the caution and would close up the field once again. Allison had picked up another three spots, so he was now in third place, just behind Petty and Earnhardt. The stage was set for what would become one of the most memorable All-Star Races in the history of the event.
When the green flag flew, Petty continued to lead, but Earnhardt would take it away from him just one lap later. Petty continued to dog the eventual seven-time series Champion, but Earnhardt kept him distant.
As the cars began the white flag lap, it was Earnhardt, Petty and then Allison a few car lengths back. Earnhardt would drive with one eye ahead, one eye out of the side window, and one eye in the rearview mirror to keep Petty behind. As they came out of turn two and headed down the backstretch on the final lap, Petty made a move to the inside of Earnhardt. Earnhardt moved his car down in an attempt to block, and forced Petty onto the apron. As the dust scattered from under Petty’s tires, the cars moved back up into the racing surface, but at an odd entry angle for the turn. Petty’s front bumper was all but kissing the rear bumper of Earnhardt, and Earnhardt, less than one mile from the finish, got loose! The car turned and did a slow spin up toward the turn three wall, and Petty scooted by on the low side to take the lead! All of this side by side racing, however, allowed Allison to keep him momentum while the others had slowed. Coming out of turn four it was Petty with the lead and Allison charging hard! It was Petty on the outside! Allison moving on the inside! Allison pulled alongside Petty and as they entered the quad oval, the two cars touched, ever so slightly, and coming to the stripe it was Allison for the win! As Allison crossed the finish line, he and Petty made contact again and Allison went spinning down the front stretch and hard into the outside wall in a shower of sparks, eventually coming to rest near the exit of the pit lane.
The damage to Allison’s car was so extreme that he needed to be cut from it, and he had lost consciousness during the wreck. He was extracted from the car and, while car owner Robert Yates and the team celebrated below, Allison was flown via helicopter to the hospital where he would spend the next two days. In the hospital, Allison would joke that he was glad he had won the money for the event, but it was too bad it would all go to paying the hospital bills.
Kyle Petty did finish second that night, followed by Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd, and Bill Elliott. After crashing in the third turn, Earnhardt would finish the event in 14th place. Richard Petty finished 9th in his final All-Star race, and would retire at the end of the 1992 season.
Allison did win the event and the money as well, along with the prestige of, to date, being the only driver to ever win the event in back to back years. The 007 car which had been so successful for the Robert Yates Racing organization and Allison as a driver, was completely destroyed and could not be saved. Allison did not remember the end of the event itself, and in the ambulance ride, asked crew chief Larry McReynolds if they had won. McReynolds replied that they did indeed. The win by Allison, the finish, the lights, the format…all would become part of the history and legend of the event known as One Hot Night.
…and the greatest final lap I have ever seen. And it’s all because of that little switch in my brain.