Six Races That Changed NASCAR: Part 3
For a year, many knew that the season finale in 1992 would be a special occasion. Richard Petty would make his final appearance on the track at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. As the season went on, another story was unfolding that would also end at that race: It was one of the closest points battles in Winston Cup history. A future champion also made his debut in NASCAR's big leagues that day. Part 3 of this series takes a look at the 1992 Hooters 500.
Before the green flag dropped on the 1992 NASCAR season, the winningest driver in the history of the sport made it known when his final race would be. "King" Richard Petty announced that the Hooters 500 on November 15th at the Atlanta Motor Speedway would be the final race of his historic career. Leading up to that final race of the season, 1992 in NASCAR became a year long tribute to Richard Petty and his legacy. Country music super group Alabama even recorded a song called "Richard Petty Fans" as a tribute to him. So in that respect, this race was already a historic one.
But, as the season wore on, another big story was coming to life that would also reach its climax in Atlanta. It was the race to the Winston Cup Championship. It was building as one of the most exciting ever in NASCAR. Six drivers had a mathematical shot at the title, but the focus was on three: Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott. Allison went into the Hooters 500 leading in the standings with Kulwicki second and Elliott third. In a literal sense, the championship could turn on any lap.
Early in the race, Richard Petty was involved in a wreck that took him out of the race for the most part. He returned to the event on the final lap, then took a lap on the track by himself afterwards to salute the fans. He finished 35th, completing officially 95 laps.
So with Petty out of most of the race, the focus became the championship. While Kulwicki and Elliott held their end of the bargain, racing near the front for most of the race, Allison struggled. Davey did lead five laps, but spent a lot of the race in the middle of the pack. Then on lap 204, he got tangled up in a wreck with Ernie Irvan, ending any title hopes. He finished the race 27th and third in the championship standings.
And then there were two: The owner driver and the underdog Alan Kulwicki and the popular former champ Bill Elliott on his home track, seeking his second title. It would come down to bonus points and laps led. In NASCAR, you get five points for leading at least a lap and an additional five bonus points for leading the most laps. Elliott led 102 laps. Kulwicki led 103. Elliott won the race with Kulwicki finishing second. But since Kulwicki led the most laps by just one, he edged Elliott for the championship by ten points. Had it been reversed and Elliott led the most laps, the two would have finished tied. Elliott would have won the title based on the fact he won the most races in 1992 of the two drivers (Elliott won five, Kulwicki two). It was the closest finish in the history of the Winston/Nextel Cup until 2004.
Bill Elliott never won another title in his career (Other than his one in 1988). He finished his career with 44 wins. Sadly, we'll never know how good the careers of his '92 title chase opponents might have been. Both Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were killed in aviation crashes less than a year after the Hooters 500. Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash on April 1st in Tennessee while on his way to the Bristol Spring race. On July 12th, Allison was going to Talladega to watch fellow "Alabama Gang" member Neil Bonett practice at the track in his comeback attempt. He was piloting a helicopter with Red Farmer riding with him when it crashed in the infield at the track. Farmer walked away, but Allison suffered grave injuries. Davey died at a Birmingham, Alabama hospital the next morning.
With the final race of Richard Petty's career and the close points battle, the 1992 Hooters 500 has its place among the great races in NASCAR history. There is one other side note that some fans forget about that race. A young driver made his debut in the Winston Cup Series that very same afternoon in Atlanta. He would go on to be a future champion himself and would change the way some look at NASCAR. That future star making his debut in the 1992 Hooters 500 was Jeff Gordon.
Below are a couple clips from Youtube.com