Fast Five: Best Throwback Paint Schemes at Darlington

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington is NASCAR’s oldest crown jewel, dating back to 1950 when Johnny Mantz won with a whopping average speed of 75.25 miles per hour.

This weekend, as the speeds will approach 200, the competitors will honor the past for the third straight year during NASCAR’s throwback weekend.

Darlington Raceway began the throwback theme for their race weekends in 2015, and the event instantly became a favorite in the sport, getting bigger and better every year.

In addition to some throwback apparel and haircuts making their way through the garage area each year, the majority of the cars are sporting throwback paint schemes to the drivers of yesteryear.

Here are the best among the paint schemes for this year’s throwback weekend:

Honorable Mention:  XFinity Series Drivers Honor Legends

The cars in Saturday’s XFinity Series race, the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200, will not race in the Southern 500, but are still honoring some of the sports’ greatest legends.

Dylan Lupton is throwing back to six-time Southern 500 winner and four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, and his classic rainbow paint scheme from the 1990s.  In the rainbow DuPont car, Gordon won four straight Southern 500s from 1995-98, including the 1997 win to clinch the Winston Million bonus.

Erik Jones pays tribute to the late Davey Allison, who drove a #28 Texaco-Havoline paint scheme in the late 1980s, including his 1987 Rookie of the Year season and a runner-up finish to his father Bobby in the 1988 Daytona 500 in a car that is also being thrown back to this weekend (see below).

Ryan Reed is honoring the late Alan Kulwicki on the 25th anniversary of his remarkable 1992 Cup Series title.  This paint scheme is from 1989, when Kulwicki drove his #7 Zerex Ford to his first career Cup win at Phoenix.

Cole Custer’s car honors two-time XFinity Series champion Sam Ard (1983-84), who died earlier this year.  Ard, who is Pamplico, S.C., near Darlington, won 22 XFinity races in just three seasons before retiring after the 1984 season due to injuries.

Jeremy Clements, who drove a family-owned car to win last week’s XFinity Series race at Road America in a huge upset, is honoring A.J. Foyt, who drove this paint scheme to victory in the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.  This car has personal meaning for Clements; his grandfather Crawford was the crew chief on Foyt’s car.

Dakoda Armstrong honors legend and local native Cale Yarborough, from Timmonsville, S.C., who won five Southern 500s and three consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles (1976-78).  Yarborough drove this paint scheme, sponsored by Hardee’s, from 1983-87, mostly in number 28, the number of Armstrong’s car this weekend.

 

5.  Denny Hamlin

While all the throwbacks honor racing’s legends, Hamlin’s is unique as it honors modified racing legend Ray Hendrick.  Hendrick, from Hamlin’s home state of Virginia, is nicknamed Mr. Modified, won over 700 races, and is the all-time winner at Martinsville Speedway with 20.

4.  Aric Almirola

Richard Petty Motorsports’ #43 will honor The King with a car replicating the paint scheme he drove to his 200th and final victory on July 4, 1984 in the Firecracker 400.  Almirola has honored Petty with his throwback the last two years, but you can’t go wrong honoring the undisputed greatest living driver in the sport’s history.  This car even has the original sponsor, STP, on the throwback scheme.

3.  Three Classics from 1985-1989

The official theme for this year’s throwback weekend is the 1985-89 era, and these cars are running paint schemes from that era:

Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman are both throwing back to Dale Earnhardt’s Wrangler Chevrolet from the late 1980s, but Dillon’s is the more notable throwback as he does so in car number 3.  This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the first of three Southern 500 wins by The Intimidator, who won seven NASCAR Cup titles.

Kasey Kahne will recreate the Levi Garrett #5 Chevrolet, driven by Geoff Bodine from 1985-89 in the early years of Hendrick Motorsports, including his 1986 Daytona 500 win.  The number has since been driven by drivers including Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin, all at Hendrick, but will not return in 2018 as Hendrick re-aligns its car numbers to allow Chase Elliott to drive #9, his Hall of Fame father’s old number.

Matt DiBenedetto’s #32 Ford depicts the #12 Miller High Life Buick that Bobby Allison drove to victory in the aforementioned 1988 Daytona 500.  Allison’s career also ended in this paint scheme when he was seriously injured in a 1988 crash at Pocono.

2.  Drivers Throwing Back to Themselves

Two drivers are throwing back to cars they drove in the 1990s.  (You know you’re old when…)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his final Southern 500 start in his #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, in the paint scheme he drove in the XFinity Series as a #3 AC Delco Chevrolet in 1998-99.  Earnhardt Jr. won two XFinity Series titles in the car, and finished 2nd in the 1998 XFinity Series race at Darlington.  He has never won the Southern 500 but finished second in 2014 and eighth in 2015 (he did not start last year due to injury).

Talk about throwbacks, how about a throwback driver!  1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, who made his Cup debut in 1982, will make his 11th Cup start of the season in a paint scheme he drove in 1994 for owner Bobby Allison, as Mane ‘n’ Tail returns as sponsor.  This is not the first time Cope has thrown back to himself, as he drove the paint scheme from his Daytona win in the 2015 Darlington XFinity Series race.  Cope has not finished higher than 31st in a race this season.

1.  Brad Keselowski 

Brad Keselowski will drive a Miller Genuine Draft Ford identical to the car Rusty Wallace drove from 1991-95, a period when he won 23 races.  Miller has sponsored the Penske Racing #2 car ever since, so the sponsor is even the same on this throwback.  Even as simple as it is, this is one of the great paint schemes in the sport’s history, and I naturally like black and gold things, so this is easily the top paint scheme of this year’s throwback weekend.

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Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

Column: A Historic Sunday to Savor at The Brickyard

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the only racing facility in the U.S. designated a National Historic Site, and has already added to its history this year with the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, arguably the most renowned auto race in the world.

Today, while it was far less expected, the Speedway adds more history to its hallowed paddock as NASCAR runs one of its most story-filled races in recent memory at the track.

This date has been circled for months on many calendars in the NASCAR garage, as it has been known since Tony Stewart announced his impending retirement last offseason that this would be his final appearance in the Brickyard 400, one of NASCAR’s biggest events which happens to be at the “home track” of the Rushville, Ind. native and sure-fire future NASCAR Hall of Famer.

And that alone is reason to watch on Sunday.  While Kyle Busch is the assumed favorite, and is on the pole as he tries to become just the second back-to-back winner in the Brickyard 400’s 23-year history, Stewart has a realistic chance to add to his storied history at the World’s Most Famous Speedway.

Smoke, as some fans call him, starts third as he tries to become just the third driver to win three (or more) times in the event, although he has yet to win the race since becoming an owner-driver (although another Stewart-owned car, Ryan Newman, won in 2013).

Stewart’s Indianapolis ties extend beyond his NASCAR career.  Before coming to NASCAR Stewart raced in the IndyCar Series, winning the series championship in 1997, and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1996.  Stewart was the first driver to do “the double,” running both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the Sunday before Memorial Day, in 1999.

And yet, Stewart’s final start in the Brickyard 400 has been overshadowed, as four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon comes out of retirement to fill the seat of the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Gordon’s final season was the main storyline of the 2015 NASCAR campaign, and his win at Martinsville, the 93rd of his career, allowed him to reach the “Championship Four” and run for the series title in the season finale at Homestead, which was believed to be his final start.

But with Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the car with concussion-like symptoms, who better for Hendrick Motorsports to turn to than Gordon?  The term “super-sub” has been used with several drivers who have often been substitutes in the event of injury (Regan Smith, Brian Vickers, etc.), but this is the ultimate “super-sub,” as Hendrick can put a driver of Gordon’s experience, talent, and knowledge in the car.

Gordon is expected to be in Earnhardt’s seat through at least next week’s race at Pocono.  Expectations for any race team often drop with a substitute driver, but there is no reason why they should here, especially considering Gordon’s record at this particular track.

Gordon, who is a Pittsboro, Ind. native and grew up dreaming of running at The Speedway, has won the Brickyard 400 five times.  To put that in perspective, no driver has won the Indianapolis 500 more than four times.

Gordon won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and added wins in 1998, 2001, 2004, and as recently as 2014.  Gordon is the only driver who has been in the field for every Brickyard 400, a streak that continues today with the 23rd edition.

Gordon is driving a car not numbered 24 for the first time in his career, but joins an illustrious list of drivers to pilot #88 in the Sprint Cup Series (Buck Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Gordon and Stewart are both synonymous with Indianapolis as much as any other driver and any other track on the NASCAR circuit, and today their paths cross once again as their cars cross the venerable Yard of Bricks 160 times on this hot Indiana Sunday.

As Gordon briefly returns, and Stewart bid farewell to his favorite venue, take time today to take it all in and savor this historic event, whether you are watching from the hallowed grounds of Indianapolis or your living room.

And wouldn’t it be even more special, unbelievable, and breathtaking if cars numbered 88 and 14 crossed that Yard of Bricks for the 160th time running side-by-side?  It would only be fitting if these two legends could produce a legendary battle to the checkered flag.

 

 

23rd Brickyard 400
Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards
Row 2:  Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Row 4:  Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 5:  Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson
Row 6:  Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon
Row 7:  Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano
Row 8:  Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 9:  Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth
Row 10:  Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne
Row 11:  Jeff Gordon, Chris Buescher
Row 12:  Paul Menard, Danica Patrick
Row 13:  A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Michael McDowell, David Ragan
Row 15:  Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 16:  Clint Bowyer, Brian Scott
Row 17:  Landon Cassill, Casey Mears
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Ryan Ellis
Row 19:  Regan Smith, Michael Annett
Row 20:  Reed Sorenson, Patrick Carpentier
Failed to qualify:  Josh Wise

NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

The Day Modern NASCAR Was Born

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
Notables:
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

 

Final Standings
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
Notables:
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

Gordon Wins Wild One at Martinsville

(*Editor’s note: I write game recap articles, or as those of us in the sportswriting business say, “gamers”, all the time in my work for the Anderson Independent-Mail.  However, that experience is currently limited to football, basketball, baseball, and softball, so I decided to, for the experience and practice of doing so, write an article on today’s NASCAR race at Martinsville.  Here is the result, and I felt it appropriate to publish here.)

 

As Jeff Gordon’s career races into the twilight, the four-time Sprint Cup champion won Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville by literally doing just that.

Gordon, in his final season of Sprint Cup competition, collected his 93rd career Sprint Cup Series victory by outracing the competition in near darkness.  With the win, Gordon earned a spot in the Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, November 22 at Homestead, as he tries to win his fifth title, and first since 2001.

The win was the first of Gordon’s farewell season, ending a 39-race winless streak, and was a wildly popular victory among the fans at the Virginia short track.  This wasn’t the first time Martinsville fans have seen Gordon win, as he won the trophy’s signature grandfather clock trophy for a ninth time, the most among active drivers.

Gordon took the lead with 22 laps to go, passing A.J. Allmendinger.  Allmendinger had taken the lead from Denny Hamlin at lap 460 of the 500-lap race, after both had opted not to pit during a caution flag, just after Gordon had taken the lead at lap 454.

After the race’s 18th caution came out with six to go, Gordon restarted side-by-side with eventual runner-up Jamie McMurray, but never lost the lead and cleared McMurray with two to go, finishing off an emotional win, which was one of the biggest of his storied career.

“What an incredible battle that was,” Gordon said.  “We just stuck with it, all day long, just trying to protect those rear tires, and it all fell in our lap.”

Gordon inherited the lead with 46 laps to go, when Matt Kenseth, who was several laps down, wrecked race leader Joey Logano, who was going for his fourth straight win, heavily damaging both cars.

The incident appeared to be Kenseth’s retribution for being spun by Logano with five to go two weeks ago at Kansas while racing for the win.  Kenseth, who was eliminated from the Chase last week, said afterward the incident was due to a right-front tire problem, but was parked by NASCAR for the rest of the race, although that likely didn’t affect his finishing position of 38th.

“I think what happened at Kansas is a completely different deal,” Logano said.  “We were racing for the win and (Kenseth) blocks you a few times and then we raced hard and he blocked me the last time and we spun out.  Here it was just a complete coward move, especially for a championship race car driver and race team. Just a complete coward. I don’t have anything else to say.”

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell addressed the situation afterward, showing NASCAR’s displeasure at the incident.

“What was disappointing today would be the incident we’re referring to where (Kenseth) is not competing for a win, (and) in fact, is several laps down when that happened.  In our mind, that’s a little bit different that two drivers really going after it coming out of turn four for a win, versus what happened tonight.”

NASCAR didn’t immediately penalize Kenseth on Sunday night, as has often been the case in similar situations, as O’Donnell said NASCAR will continue to analyze what happened into the early part of this week.

“There’s still a lot to digest from what happened tonight,” O’Donnell said.  “We’ll have some additional conversations, and probably come out with something, if there is anything to discuss, on Tuesday.”

Logano led nine times for a race-high 207 laps, which is why Gordon saw the incident between Logano and Kenseth as a turning point.

“Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor,” Gordon said.  “But you’ve got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were.”

Kenseth’s car was damaged from a previous crash at lap 436, when Brad Keselowski clipped Kenseth while racing for second position on a restart, and Kenseth’s Toyota spun, collecting Kurt Busch.  Keselowski had led 143 laps, and all three drivers were threats to win before the accident.

Gordon led 35 laps, the fourth-highest total in the race, but after running no lower than 10th all day was at the front when it counted most, and now won’t have to reach Homestead on points.

“People don’t give this team enough credit, and we seized an opportunity right there,” Gordon said.  “I don’t think this opportunity will present itself the next couple of weeks, but it sure is nice to have taking advantage of this one and not have to worry about that.”

After Gordon, the next highest-finishing Chase drivers were Kyle Busch in fifth and Martin Truex Jr. in sixth.  Kevin Harvick finished eighth, and Carl Edwards finished 14th, while the accident involving Keselowski and Kurt Busch relegated them to finishes of 32nd and 34th, respectively.  Logano finished 37th after the contact with Kenseth.

Hamlin finished third, while Allmendinger, after losing the lead to Gordon, fell back to 11th.

The race to join Gordon in the four-driver championship battle at Homestead has Kyle Busch and Truex both nine points above the cut-off, with Harvick seven points clear.  The first driver out would be Edwards, seven points behind fourth, with Keselowski 24 points back of Harvick, Kurt Busch 26 markers back, and Logano, who entered Martinsville the championship favorite, 28 points behind the cut-off.

There are two races left in the eight-driver Eliminator Round, with next week’s event at Texas, and the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix, before the season finale at Homestead.

After the win, Gordon showed his excitement in advancing to the final Chase race at Homestead, pointing to the possibility of a Hollywood ending to his illustrious career.

“This has turned into a fairy tale year,” Gordon said.  “I just can’t believe it.  Homestead is going to be an unbelievable weekend, and we’re so focused.”

Top 10 Underrated Daytona 500s

The Daytona 500 is today, marking the sport’s biggest event as a new season gets underway from the World Center of Racing.  NASCAR is unique in that it starts its season with its Super Bowl, meaning that the driver holding the Harley J. Earl trophy Sunday night will be a winner all season long, no matter how well they run the rest of the 2015 Sprint Cup campaign.

Many people can recognize video of the great finishes at the 500, such as when Richard Petty and David Pearson crashed on the final lap and Pearson limped across the line in 1976, or when Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s crash led to a post-race fist fight, and Petty came from half a lap behind to win in 1979, or when Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin by a fender while the “Big One” happened behind them in 2007, or the photo finish between Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp in the very first 500 in 1959.

Other images are filed in the most memorable category, from veteran drivers finally winning the 500 after years of trying, like Darrell Waltrip in 1989 and Dale Earnhardt in 1998, to Ned Jarrett doing impromptu play-by-play while simultaneously cheering son Dale Jarrett across the line in 1993 and 1996, and Darrell Waltrip doing the same with brother Michael Waltrip in 2001, although the final lap of that 500 became more remembered for a legend lost in the final corner when Earnhardt was killed.

The 500 has also produced some major upsets, like Trevor Bayne winning his second Cup Series start in 2013, or Derrike Cope slipping past Earnhardt after The Intimidator cut a tire in the final turn in 1990, or little-known Pete Hamilton won his first race at the Speedway in 1970.

Others aren’t necessarily memorable for their winners, but other circumstances, like the jet dryer explosion in 2012 in the only Monday 500 due to rain, or Danica Patrick becoming the first female pole sitter in any NASCAR race in 2013, or the aforementioned 1979 race, also known as the first live flag-to-flag broadcast of a race.

But some 500s aren’t remembered as much as they might should be.  Whether it’s because the principles involved didn’t have names like Petty and Earnhardt, or because they have simply been slowly forgotten over time, some 500s had outstanding storylines or finishes, but are never mentioned among the greatest moments in the history of the Great American Race.

Here are the top 10 underrated Daytona 500s:

Honorable Mention:  1967: Mario Andretti
While there wasn’t anything particularly special about the racing in this 500, the mere fact that one of the Indianapolis 500’s greatest champions came to Daytona and won, albeit early in his storied career, may very well have added to the prestige of what was still at that time a very young event.  This was comparable to A.J. Foyt’s win five years later, but Mario’s came first.

10. 1986: Geoff Bodine
The race was dominated by the tandem of Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine, and turned into a fuel mileage race late.  Earnhardt had to pit with three to go for a splash-and-go, but there should have still been some drama to see if Bodine could make it on fuel.  Instead, Earnhardt overshot his pit stall, then blew his engine leaving pit road.  With Earnhardt out of the picture, Bodine was able to cruise to an 11-second victory, which was owner Rick Hendrick’s first in the 500.  It was also the first of many near misses for Earnhardt before he finally won in his 20th try in 1998.  The clip of Earnhardt overshooting his pit is sometimes shown, particularly when talking about Daytona heartbreakers, by Earnhardt or overall, and is accompanied by pit reporter Chris Economaki’s line of “it looks like Mr. Bodine is gonna be the beneficiary.”

 

9. 2010: Jamie McMurray
The 2010 finish didn’t necessarily include too many big names, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. came from nowhere to take second on the final lap, but the late race battle between McMurray, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Kevin Harvick saw three lead changes in the last ten laps, a period which included two cautions.  McMurray’s win was in his first appearance for what was then known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (now Chip Ganassi Racing), and was a popular win in the garage as McMurray is well liked by everyone.  Earnhardt Jr. came from in the teens with a few laps to go to second on the final lap with a massive run up the middle, and caught McMurray, but couldn’t pass him, part of a stretch of three runner-up finishes in four years from 2010-13 before Junior won his second 500 last year.  This race is more remembered by some for the pothole which developed in turn one which red flagged the race twice than it is for the winner.

 

8. 2008: Ryan Newman
The 50th Daytona 500 had a special pre-race ceremony honoring all 31 former winners of the 500, but Ryan Newman joined that group later that evening by passing Tony Stewart on the final lap to win the race.  Newman had a push from teammate Kurt Busch, and Stewart blocked them at first, before jumping to the bottom with teammate Kyle Busch.  At the time the win was Newman’s first since 2005, although he has since had a career renaissance, including a second place points finish in 2014.  This race is the biggest near miss for Stewart in the 500, which he still has not won, going into his 17th career try on Sunday.  Kurt Busch has also not won the 500 in 14 tries, although he will not be in Sunday’s race due to his recent indefinite suspension for domestic violence.

 

7. 1980: Buddy Baker
Before Darrell Waltrip won his first 500 in his 17th try, and before Earnhardt won his first 500 in his 20th try, there was Buddy Baker.  He went into the 1980 race attempting to win it for the 18th time, after often having one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks, driving for Petty Enterprises, Ray Fox, Bud Moore, and Cotton Owens, among others.  He came to Speedweeks in 1979 with Ranier-Lundy, and had the fastest car, which won the pole, but blew its engine in the early going of (in my opinion) the greatest Sprint Cup race in history.  A year later he had an equally fast car, winning the pole again, but this time leading 143 of the 200 laps on his way to the victory.  The race was, and still is, the fastest 500 in history, averaging 177.602 mph.  Baker held the record for most attempts before winning the race until Earnhardt won his only 500 in 1998.

 

6. 1960: Junior Johnson
This race isn’t necessarily known as the most exciting race ever run, but it has much more historical significance than most other 500s that have been run.  This was just the second running of the race, and the Daytona track, as well as the concept of running on a 2.5-mile superspeedway, was still in its infancy.  Johnson ran the race in a car owned by John Masoni, and although he wasn’t one of the fastest cars, he discovered that if he got directly behind another car he would run faster in their air, an idea which became the concept of drafting, a staple of Daytona racing ever since.  Johnson used his new strategy to win the race, taking the lead with nine to go when Bobby Johns spun, while Masoni went on to win six races as an owner the next two years before leaving the sport.  Johnson, of course, would go on to become an icon, being inducted into the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after winning 50 races, and is the winningest driver to have never won a championship, only because he never ran all of the races in an attempt to.  One other note about this race is the third place finisher was a very young Richard Petty, for the first of his 11 top fives in the 500, which he won seven times.

 

5. 1995: Sterling Marlin
In this 500, Sterling Marlin joined Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win back-to-back 500s, after winning it in 1994.  That win had been his first Cup Series win, as he became the first driver to win the first both of the first two races of his career in the 500.  But that’s not entirely why this race is on this list.  After Marlin passed Earnhardt for the lead with 20 to go and a caution five laps later, Earnhardt, who probably had the best car, pitted for tires, taking the gamble of fresh tires over track position.  Following the pit stop, Earnhardt was outside the top 10 with 11 to go, but stormed back to the front, looking for his first 500 win.  He reached second position with four laps to go, and tried as hard as he could to pass Marlin, but the Tennessean took the checkered flag, once again denying Earnhardt a 500 win.

 

4. 1963: Tiny Lund
This 500 is on the list because of its storyline.  Tiny Lund went to Daytona in 1963 to see if he could find a ride for the 500.  Marvin Panch went to Daytona to drive the Wood Brothers #21 Ford in the 500, but first ran a sports car race (what would eventually become today’s Rolex 24).  In that race, Panch was involved in a crash, and Lund, who was a friend of Panch and was watching as a spectator, ran to Panch’s burning car and pulled him out, saving his life.  Panch was injured though, and Panch asked the Woods if Lund could drive his car in the 500.  Lund did, and when Ned Jarrett ran out of gas with three laps to go, Lund took the lead, and went on to win the 500.  Lund would go on to win five career Cup Series races, before he was killed in a 1975 crash at Talladega.  The Wood Brothers would become one of NASCAR’s most legendary teams, but this was just the sixth win of their then-brief history.  They have gone on to win 98 races, including five wins in the 500, including David Pearson’s legendary win in 1976, and Trevor Bayne’s upset in 2011.

 

3. 2005: Jeff Gordon
Ten years ago a future Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon, became just the fifth driver to win three or more Daytona 500s, by winning this thriller.  The drivers at the front included Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, defending race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and defending series champion Kurt Busch.  Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, and Gordon changed the lead four times in the final nine laps.  This was at the height of the excellent period of restrictor plate racing in the mid-2000s, and many of the best at it were in the running for the win in this race.  One underdog at the front was Scott Riggs, who is winless in his Sprint Cup career, but finished fourth in this race.  This was the fifth of Hendrick Motorsports’ eight 500 wins, and is the most recent win for Gordon, who will today try to match Earnhardt Jr. for the longest time in between 500 wins with a win ten years later.

 

2. 1984: Cale Yarborough
This 500 should be considered one of the all-time best.  Yarborough had become the first pole sitter for the 500 to break the 200 mph barrier, and he also won his qualifying race, so when he won the 500 he joined Fireball Roberts in 1962 as the second driver to win all three in one speedweeks (the only to do all three since is Bill Elliott in 1985).  There were 34 lead changes in this 500, with the best coming on the final lap.  Yarborough passed Darrell Waltrip, who was at the time still looking for his first 500 win, on the backstretch with his “slingshot” maneuver after Waltrip had led the previous 38 laps.  The move had won him multiple races at Daytona, including the previous year’s 500 with a pass of Buddy Baker.  Hall of Famers took the top three in this race, as Dale Earnhardt got around Waltrip for the second spot, and Waltrip finished third.  Yarborough became the second back-to-back winner of the 500, and gave Ranier-Lundy (which later became Robert Yates Racing and won two more 500s) their third win in five years at Daytona.

 

1. 2002: Ward Burton
Although this race isn’t talked about very much today, the entire final hour of this 500 was extremely dramatic, and had multiple key moments, making this the most underrated 500 ever.  After pre-race favorites Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had early problems, “the big one” on lap 149 took out 18 more cars.  Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kurt Busch with 24 to go, and led until a restart with six to go.  A chain reaction of cars not getting up to speed quickly caused a crash in the middle of the pack, and when the caution came out, Sterling Marlin went underneath Gordon to try to take the lead while racing back to the caution flag (they did this back then).  Gordon tried to block, and was spun across the front of Marlin’s car.  Marlin and Ward Burton raced back around, with Marlin beating Burton by a nose.  While driving around, Marlin clearly had a fender rub from the contact with Gordon, and after the race was red-flagged to ensure a green-flag finish.  Marlin got out of his car and pulled the fender off the tire, illegally working on his car under the red flag, later joking in his Tennessee drawl, “I saw Earnhardt do that one time, so I thought it was alright.” (The instance he is referring to happened under the yellow, not the red flag.)  What then played out on the broadcast during the red flag was a long discussion over the penalty for working on the car under the red flag, as well as the potential of a yellow line violation when Marlin went below Gordon (drivers can’t advance their position below the yellow line that separates the track and the apron).  Marlin was sent to the rear for the red flag violation, giving Burton the lead for the first time all day.  He led the final five laps, his only five laps led, to win the 500, one of five career Cup Series wins for Burton, whose son Jeb fell just short of qualifying for this year’s 500 this week.  It was also one of five race victories for owner Bill Davis, and the first 500 win for Dodge since 1974 (although they were out of the sport for many years).  Marlin finished eighth, and Gordon finished ninth, after both had lost an excellent shot to win the 500.  This race had it all, and Michael Waltrip, who was involved in the crash with six to go, said afterward “I’ll just tell people I spun out at Daytona with five to go, and ran fifth, and that’s all the description it needs,” and broadcaster Allen Bestwick said “We have seen our share of twists and turns over the years in the Daytona 500 but this one may top them all.”  While, other than Gordon, the drivers involved didn’t necessarily have the most success, and weren’t the most popular, the drama which unfolded in this 500 was, in some ways, unmatched, and the winner was a well liked driver like Burton, so I don’t know why this isn’t remembered among the greatest of all Daytona 500s.

 

 

Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)

2015 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Crafton*
Row 3:  Joey Logano, Carl Edwards
Row 4:  Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle
Row 5:  Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 6:  Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney
Row 7:  Kasey Kahne, Reed Sorenson
Row 8:  Jamie McMurray, Mike Wallace
Row 9:  Landon Cassill, Justin Allgaier
Row 10:  Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick
Row 11:  Paul Menard, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Regan Smith^
Row 13:  J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland
Row 14:  Michael Annett, David Ragan
Row 15:  Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon
Row 16:  Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 17:  Aric Almirola, Michael Waltrip
Row 18:  Matt Kenseth, Johnny Sauter
Row 19:  Trevor Bayne, Sam Hornish Jr.
Row 20:  Brad Keselowski, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 21:  Casey Mears, Denny Hamlin
Row 22:  Bobby Labonte
Failed to qualify:  Alex Bowman, Brian Scott, Jeb Burton, Justin Marks, Josh Wise, Ron Hornaday Jr., Joe Nemechek
*substituting for Kyle Busch

^substituting for Kurt Busch