November 15, 1992 was a historic day on multiple levels for NASCAR, as a race in Atlanta marked the end of the closest points battle at the time in the sport’s history, the end of the career of Richard Petty, and the career debut of Jeff Gordon.
As fondly as the day is remembered by NASCAR fans, the statement that it was one of the greatest races the sport has ever seen doesn’t do justice to the day and its impact.
No, the date of November 15, 1992, should be remembered as a birthday, because the NASCAR in its modern form was born that afternoon in Georgia.
The race was the perfect storm of events, as while Richard Petty, “The King”, was making his final Cup Series start, that arguably wasn’t the biggest storyline. Six drivers entered the race with a shot to win the Cup title, with the threesome of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all having realistic chances at the title. Of course, the storyline surrounding Gordon’s first start wasn’t a big deal until later, as Gordon went on to become one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.
Petty, who won a record 200 races in his illustrious 35-year career, along with a record seven Cup championships (Dale Earnhardt would tie this record in 1994), was 55 years old in 1992, and had not won a race since 1984. His best finish in his final season had been a modest 15th, and he would finish 26th in the series point standings, but that didn’t stop the fans from adoring him at each track along his “Fan Appreciation Tour,” as they wanted a glimpse of The King’s final season.
In addition to the three main title contenders, Petty’s son Kyle, along with Harry Gant and Mark Martin, had mathematical chances at the title, marking the only time in NASCAR history that six drivers had a chance to win the championship in the season’s final race. However, unless Allison, Kulwicki, and Elliott all had problems or did poorly in the race, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin had no realistic shot.
The three main contenders for the title got to where they were in 1992 in three different ways. Davey Allison was the son of Bobby Allison, a NASCAR Hall of Famer who won 84 races, tied for the fourth most all-time. Davey had a rapid rise to NASCAR stardom, winning Rookie of the Year in 1987 after becoming the first rookie to win multiple races, and finishing second to his father at the Daytona 500 the following year. While the road was made easier by Allison having a father among the sport’s greats, he had still gotten to the point of title contention in 1992 through hard work, and had had a rough season.
The humble Alabaman had several vicious crashes causing minor injuries which he continued to drive through in subsequent races, and also suffered the death of his brother, Clifford, in a racing accident at Michigan International Speedway. Despite all this, Allison led the points entering Atlanta, on the strength of five wins.
Elliott had come up through the ranks of racing as part of a family operation, which was later bought by Harry Melling, and had won the Winston Million bonus in 1985, winning three of the sport’s four biggest races to do so, and the Cup Series title in 1988. He was with a new team in 1992, with owner Junior Johnson, which was, at the time, one of the top rides in the sport. Elliott entered the finale in Atlanta with four wins on the season.
Kulwicki was the underdog (so much so that during the Atlanta race, his Ford Thunderbird had a sticker over the “Th” so it simply read “Underbird”). He had moved south in 1985 to pursue a full-time NASCAR career, beginning with very little money and resources. By the start of 1992, as a driver-owner with his own team, Kulwicki had won three races, and had grabbed the attention of big-name team owners, including Junior Johnson, but was determined to do it his own way, and continued racing for his own team. The Wisconsinite won two races in ’92, which was less than both Allison and Elliott, but was consistent enough to be in the thick of the points battle heading into the final battle, and had overcome a 278-point deficit (in the old points format, with each position worth 3-5 points) with six races remaining to with some excellent runs in the weeks prior to Atlanta.
Allison entered the race leading the standings, and could clinch the Cup title with a finish of sixth or better. Kulwicki was second, 10 points ahead of third place Elliott.
A crowd of 160,000, the largest attendance for any sporting event in Georgia, saw action early, with a first lap crash that included pole-sitter Rick Mast. All of the title contenders got through, except for Allison, who was rear-ended as he checked up to avoid the crash, and had some minor fender damage. It wasn’t too big of a setback, as by the 90-lap mark of the 328-lap event, Allison had gained the race lead.
Petty, who hadn’t been a threat to win for all of the 1992 season, simply wanted to run the entire race, but on lap 95, he was caught up in an accident that started in front of him. Petty rear-ended Rich Bickle, causing heavy front-end damage, and breaking the oil cooler, causing the car to catch on fire. Petty’s car would not appear back on the track until the very end of the race, when he drove the car, without a front end, for the final two laps, but The King was able to avoid a dreaded DNF in his final start.
As the race went on, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin all fell out of contention, leaving the top three to battle it out for the championship.
With the race’s many storylines, Gordon’s debut was, as most debuts are, an afterthought, although on another day it may have gotten a small amount of attention, considering Gordon had finished fourth in the 1992 NASCAR Busch Series (now XFinity Series) standings. However, after Gordon’s novice pit crew left a roll of duct tape on the hood, and it fell out on the track, Gordon became part of the championship storyline, as Allison ran over the tape, causing a moderate amount of damage.
Allison’s car didn’t handle as well from that point forward. He fell backward after running over the debris but, as the race entered the closing stages, had worked his way back up into the sixth position, the very spot where he could clinch the title no matter what Kulwicki or Elliott did. Then, disaster struck.
With 74 to go, Ernie Irvan blew a tire exiting turn four, and spun right into Allison’s path, leaving him with no way to avoid hitting Irvan. Allison tried to drive the car away, but the crash had ruined both his steering and his championship hopes. He would finish 43 laps down in 27th, and after his misfortune, the championship battle was down to Kulwicki and Elliott.
Allison, who was known for his contagiously positive attitude, responded afterward to a reporter’s statement that the outcome was “almost cruel” by saying, “Nah, it just wasn’t meant to be.” Allison was known for saying, “Whatever life throws at me, there’s nothing me and the Lord can’t handle together,” and life had thrown plenty at Allison, both on this November day, and throughout all of 1992, and yet Allison showed tremendous grace in defeat, finishing third in the final standings.
Kulwicki had taken the lead with 118 laps to go over Elliott, who was running second, and as the final pit stop of the race approached, Kulwicki’s crew determined that if he stayed in the lead until lap 309, he would clinch, at minimum, a tie with Elliott for leading the most laps, and therefore five bonus points. In waiting until lap 309, however, Kulwicki nearly ran out of fuel. When he did pit with 19 to go, Elliott, who still had to pit, inherited the lead.
Kulwicki, due to a transmission issue, couldn’t get off of pit road quickly, so when Elliott pitted at lap 314, he stayed in front of Kulwicki. Terry Labonte stayed on the track to lead the following lap, before Elliott retook the lead with 12 to go. That lap led by Labonte ensured that Kulwicki would lead the most laps outright, meaning he would, in fact, get the five bonus points (and Elliott would not; had they tied for the most laps led, both would have received five points).
Kulwicki’s crew wasn’t sure if they got enough fuel in the car, meaning that for the final laps, Kulwicki had to save fuel, and couldn’t try to run down Elliott for the win. However, Kulwicki’s crew knew that if their driver could just stay in second behind Elliott, he would still gain enough points to win the title, because he was assured of the laps led bonus.
Elliott took the checkered flag as the race winner, for his fifth win of the year. Ironically enough, the next driver to cross the finish line behind Elliott was Richard Petty, 233 laps down in 35th. Eight seconds later, Kulwicki crossed the line to finish the race in second, and clinched his first Cup series championship.
Elliott called it a hollow victory, as he won the battle but lost the war to Kulwicki. Kulwicki celebrated the title by doing a backwards victory lap, which he called the “Polish victory lap”. He had celebrated with the Polish victory lap after his first win, but NASCAR wasn’t particularly fond of this celebration, so Kulwicki promised not to perform it again until he won a championship. That afternoon in Atlanta, Kulwicki, who was the first owner-driver to win a title since Petty in 1979, got to celebrate his way.
After Elliott and Kulwicki were interviewed on ESPN’s race broadcast, the stage was set for Petty’s farewell. He drove his battered car around the 1.522-mile track one last time, at a much slower pace to allow everyone a final glimpse of The King as he waved out the window to the throngs of his adoring fans.
Gordon’s debut wasn’t a memorable one. After the pit road gaffe which subsequently affected Allison, Gordon, while battling a loose racecar, spun out and hit the wall on lap 164. He was unable to continue, and finished 31st, a finish that was not at all indicative of the incredible career that had just begun.
The impact of this race on the history of NASCAR is matched by very few individual races, ranking alongside the 1979 Daytona 500 (the first live flag-to-flag telecast, ending in a classic finish, and a fight) and the 2001 Daytona 500 (the first race of NASCAR’s lucrative new FOX/NBC television deal, ending with the death of Dale Earnhardt), among others.
Such a close championship battle was unusual in 1992, as the 10-point margin was the closest in the history of NASCAR at the time, beating the 11-point margin in 1979 when Richard Petty beat Darrell Waltrip, and in many years the championship had already been decided before the final race. It is certainly possible, however, that after the 1992 finale, the wheels started turning among the suits at NASCAR to try to figure out a way to have the same level of drama each and every year.
It was another 12 years before the Chase for the Cup was born in 2004, but in the interim there were very few close championship battles, and none nearly as tight or intense as the battle between Kulwicki, Elliott, and Allison that afternoon in Atlanta.
Once the first Chase was established, using the final 10 races of the season as a form of playoffs for the sport, the first edition in 2004 was very similar to 1992, with five drivers (ironically including both Martin and Gordon) entering the final race at Homestead-Miami with a mathematical shot at the title, and three with a realistic chance. The record for the closest championship battle was broken, as Kurt Busch won the title by a mere eight points over Jimmie Johnson, with Gordon 16 points back in third.
Over each of the first 10 editions of the Chase, the championship came down to the final race, although some years the battle was closer than others. In 2011, in the first year of a simpler points system in which the basis is that each position is worth one point, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the Chase exactly tied, with Stewart winning the title based on the tiebreaker of most wins.
Beginning last year, in NASCAR’s new Chase Grid format, the title fight comes down to a winner-take-all finale with the top four championship contenders. In the first finale of this new system, with drama to match the championship fight from 1992, Kevin Harvick won the race and the championship, with title contender Ryan Newman finishing in second, and three of the four Chase drivers having a shot to win the title on the final restart.
Sunday, as the latest installment of the Chase comes to a dramatic close, Gordon will be the only driver in the field who was on the track in the 1992 finale, and will also be one of the four drivers competing for a championship, alongside Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. As Gordon competes for a title in his final start before retirement, perhaps he should reflect on the historic championship battle in his first start 23 years ago as a big part of the reason he is trying to win a title in this format. He should also be thankful for the Chase, as without the playoff-style series of races, Gordon would have had no shot at a series-long points championship this year, as he struggled for much of the season before running well enough in the Chase to qualify for the Championship Round. (On the other hand, without the Chase Gordon would have theoretically won championships in 2007, 2010, and 2014.)
Another impact the 1992 finale had on the sport is that it was a changing of the guard, with Gordon starting his career just as Petty ended his. Petty wasn’t the only time to retire around this time, as Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, and David Pearson had all retired within the six years before Petty’s farewell, and Buddy Baker had run his final race earlier in the 1992 season. Bobby Allison’s career also ended, although it wasn’t by retirement but by injury, four years before Petty retired.
Just as these stars were all leaving the sport, it created space for the stardom that Gordon would enjoy over the rest of the 1990’s, and through the rest of his career until his swan song season this year. But Gordon’s entry wasn’t the only one during this time, as Bobby Labonte, who had debuted in 1991, moved up to the Cup series in 1993, and within ten years of that fateful Atlanta afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson had all entered the Cup Series ranks.
Additionally, the stars being phased out during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were all from the South, and the statement that NASCAR was simply a regional sport based in the South still had some resonance. Only five of the top 15 finishers in Atlanta in ’92 were from outside the South. Gordon, on the other hand, was originally from California, and grew up in Indiana, giving the sport a national star to take into a new era and an explosion in popularity from coast to coast. This continued with the rest of the drivers who came to the Cup ranks shortly after Gordon, with every driver mentioned above except Earnhardt Jr. coming from outside the South.
Kulwicki and Allison might would have been stars through the rest of the 90’s too, alongside Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, as both were entering their prime with the 1992 championship battle, but within eight months of the 1992 finale, both were gone. Kulwicki died on April 1, 1993, when a plane taking him and sponsor representatives for Hooters to a race at Bristol crashed on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, killing five people. Allison died on July 13, 1993, while attempting to land a helicopter he was piloting in the infield during a test session at Talladega Superspeedway. Kulwicki was 38, and Allison was 32, robbing the sport of the remaining careers of two of its best drivers.
While Elliott didn’t suffer an untimely death like his fellow ’92 title contenders, his career did go downhill after that day in Atlanta. He only won one more race over the following two seasons with Junior Johnson, before racing as an owner-driver for the following six seasons, going winless, then winning four races in a three year stint with owner Ray Evernham (who was Gordon’s crew chief from his debut at Atlanta in ’92 through 2000). Elliott’s final full-time season was 2003, although he ran occasional races until 2012. While his career did extend into the new millennium, Elliott’s prime ended with his win at Atlanta and his near miss in the championship.
This weekend, as Gordon has shot at a career-ending title, the thought of such an ending quite remarkable, especially when compared to how all of the aforementioned stars ended their careers. Those drivers didn’t so much finish with a flourish, but instead faded into the sunset. Although Gordon is 11 years younger than Petty was in 1992, the emotions of the final season are similar, yet Gordon has a chance to end with a championship, something that has never been done (although Ned Jarrett retired midway through 1966 as the reigning champion), whereas Petty struggled through a mediocre farewell. The storylines of this Sunday are similar to that of 1992, except this time the legend that is retiring doubles as one of the championship contenders.
Looking through the prism of this weekend’s championship battle in the Sprint Cup Series, it is important to look at 1992 as the first suspenseful and dramatic championship battle.
The finale in Atlanta that afternoon laid the groundwork for the sport’s future in more ways than one, making November 15, 1992 the day that NASCAR, in its modern form, was born.
1992 Hooters 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Run, Laps Led, Points)
1. Bill Elliott, 11, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 328, 102, 180
2. Alan Kulwicki, 14, AK Racing, Ford, 328, 103, 180
3. Geoffrey Bodine, 8, Bud Moore Engineering, Ford, 328, 1, 170
4. Jimmy Spencer, 18, Bobby Allison Racing, Ford, 328, 0, 160
5. Terry Labonte, 6, Hagan Racing, Chevrolet, 328, 1, 160
6. Rusty Wallace, 15, Penske Racing, Pontiac, 328, 0, 150
7. Sterling Marlin, 12, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 327, 0, 146
8. Jimmy Hensley, 34, Cale Yarborough Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 142
9. Ted Musgrave, 22, RaDiUs Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 138
10. Dale Jarrett, 32, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chevrolet, 326, 0, 134
13. Harry Gant, 29, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Oldsmobile, 324, 0, 124
16. Kyle Petty, 20, SABCO Racing, Pontiac, 320, 0, 115
23. Darrell Waltrip, 24, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 94
26. Dale Earnhardt, 3, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 299, 44, 90
27. Davey Allison, 17, Robert Yates Racing, Ford, 285, 5, 87
31. Jeff Gordon, 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 164, 0, 70
32. Mark Martin, 4, Roush Racing, Ford, 160, 47, 72
35. Richard Petty, 39, Petty Enterprises, Pontiac, 95, 0, 58
1. Alan Kulwicki, AK Racing, 4078
2. Bill Elliott, Junior Johnson & Associates, 4068, -10
3. Davey Allison, Robert Yates Racing, 4015, -63
4. Harry Gant, Leo Jackson Motorsports, 3955, -123
5. Kyle Petty, SABCO Racing, 3945, -133
6. Mark Martin, Roush Racing, 3887, -191
7. Ricky Rudd, Hendrick Motorsports, 3735, -343
8. Terry Labonte, Hagan Racing, 3674, -404
9. Darrell Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, 3659, -419
10. Sterling Marlin, Junior Johnson & Associates, 3603, -475
12. Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing, 3574, -504
13. Rusty Wallace, Penske Racing, 3556, -522
19. Dale Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing, 3251, -827
26. Richard Petty, Petty Enterprises, 2731, -1347
79. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 70, -4008