Matt McLaughlin · Thursday October 8, 2009
It’s been almost 17 years now. Most devoted stock car fans know the story of the 1992 Atlanta season finale and the three-way battle royale for the title in that event that many of us label it the greatest stock car race ever. But with so many years passed by and so many new fans in the sport who don’t know much of the “Pre-Jeff Gordon” era of NASCAR, a lot of you may not know about the events that led up to that momentous and historic day in Atlanta late in the Fall of 1992. So let me tell you a little about that season and the greatest comeback this sport, and probably any sport, has ever known. Know that as I do it, I relate these incidents not as a historian, but as a witness to history. Yeah, I am that old. In that era, I ate, breathed, and slept stock car racing. I still have a tape of every one of those races and sometimes on a cold winter’s evening, I’ll rewatch some of them to recall the magic that made me want this damn job with every fiber of my being. A lot of you tell me that “the good old days” weren’t really that good. Trust me children, they were. Oh, good God, they were good.
First, let’s take a look at our three main protagonists (not to slight Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, or Harry Gant, all of whom also arrived at Atlanta that fateful day with a somewhat realistic chance at the title.)
Fan favorite Bill Elliott was driving his first season for Junior Johnson having left his family-owned team. The combination of one of the sport’s most successful drivers and its most successful team owner formed what folks called the Super Team. After a heartbreaker at Daytona (he was caught up in a big wreck while battling for the lead), Elliott won the next four races. Remaining consistent after that, he was a clear contender for the title from before the time winter’s jaws lost their grip on the Northeast area I call home. And having the Most Popular Driver back in the title chase energized fans almost as much as watching Richard Petty’s Farewell tour.
Then, you had Davey Allison driving for Robert Yates on a roller coaster of a season unlike any I can recall since. Heading into the title fight, Allison had won four races including the Daytona 500, North Wilkesboro, Talladega, and Michigan. He’d also been badly injured at Bristol, Charlotte and, more notably, in a savage series of flips at Pocono, a race he’d seemed comfortably in command of prior to a pit road miscue. Take it from someone all of 20 yards from the incident as it unfolded live, standing atop a platform on an old F150, jaw hanging open in horror — Allison’s wreck made Joey Logano’s rollover at Dover look like a Smurf’s picnic. He yielded the points lead to Elliott that afternoon, then his car to Bobby Hillin and others in the weeks that followed until his injuries fully healed (Allison would start the car, ensuring he’d get the points for that day’s race). During 1992, he would endure the pain of losing his shot at the Winston Million due to weather, watching Darrell Waltrip use some timely pit strategy to pull out the final win of his career in the Southern 500. Worse yet, he endured the loss of his brother Clifford who died in a Busch series practice crash at Michigan. But like those old Timex watches, Allison took a licking and kept right on ticking. Few title runs have better epitomized the indomitable human spirit — and few outcomes of such battles have better proven the cruelty of fate.
Then you had Alan Kulwicki, the owner/driver of a single car team. Compared to Robert Yates Racing and Junior Johnson’s outfit, it seemed Kulwicki and his boys had brought a knife to a gunfight. (Just try to imagine Robby Gordon battling it out with a Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush-owned team this season.) Kulwicki had won races at Bristol and Pocono, but he was still flying well below the radar (no savage irony intended) in that year’s title Chase. Only a year before, Kulwicki’s outfit had entered the Daytona 500 without a title sponsor. He’d finished 13th in the points and won just one race. Anyone who’d predicted prior to the season that Kulwicki would win the title would have been accused of munching on a stash of Woodstock-era brown acid.
Dover seemed to be Kulwicki’s Waterloo that season, the race that dashed his Quixotic title run. For whatever reason, Alan just never seemed to get the hang of Dover, and he wrecked a lot there. That weekend started out pretty well for the No. 7 team, who took the pole and led the first lap of the race. But it all went wrong on lap 93 (of 500, by the way) when Chad Little crashed into Kulwicki’s car and took him out of the race. As such, he finished 34th in a 36-car field. You want to talk about catching a size 12 1/2 steel tip in the nads?
Let me digress for a moment, gentle readers. (When do I not? It seems almost a birthright after all these years.) I was at that race. I attended the race with somewhere around 30 co-workers or employees of a rival business up the street, as well as my brother-in-law Ken. There were about four of us who were hard core stock car racing fans. The other 26 thought a tour bus trip to see their first stock car race with beer being served at dawn was an interesting diversion considering the Eagles sucked. (We’re talking the football team here, not the band.) As one of the resident racing experts, I was besieged by questions, especially after we all threw 20 bucks into a hat and drew numbers, with the person holding the winning car number after the race getting the entire kitty. “I got Rusty Wallace. Which car does he drive?” “Black number 2 Miller car.” “I got this Dale Earnhardt guy. Is that a good pick?” “Any year but this one, dude.” “Who’s Richard Petty?” “Are you a philistine or what?” For the record, I drew the number 7, Alan Kulwicki, and through sheer fate and my lifelong record of poor laundry room habits, I still have that scrap of paper.
Bill Elliott seemed to have that race won, but in a late race series of pit stops he took tires while Ricky Rudd pitted shortly afterwards for a splash of gas. Awesome Bill was about seven seconds behind Rudd (a very popular driver in that era, especially with the very busty and blonde first-timer in our group who’d probably never made 300 bucks in her life honestly). But you didn’t need a stopwatch to see Elliott was reeling Rudd in lap after lap.
And here’s where I have a problem with folks who tell me the good old days weren’t so good. Yes, only three cars finished on the lead lap. Yes, the margin of victory was over a half second, an eternity in stock car racing. Boring race, right? Hell no! Our group of 30 were on their feet, a bit unsteadily in some cases, stomping our boots and screaming as Elliott reeled Rudd in, some rooting for the Tide car but, given our general level of intoxication, most cheering for the Bud Wagon. To add to the merriment and to further encourage Rudd and her chances at a 300 dollar payday, said busty blonde was flashing her assets each time the Tide car passed by. Damn but did I love stock car racing back in the era before political correctness gnawed its pointy-headed little evil self into our sport.
Long story short, most of the guys in our group became stock car racing fans that afternoon…some of them hard core. Me, I ended up dating the blonde.
But back to the topic at hand. Because of his wreck, Kulwicki left Dover 278 points out of the lead with six races left. Let me repeat that for the benefit of Chase fans — Alan Kulwicki left Dover Two Hundred Seventy-Eight points out of the lead, fourth in the standings. Bear with me. What I’m telling you is with six races left, Alan Kulwicki was fricking TWO HUNDRED SEVENTY-EIGHT POINTS out of the lead with six races left to run. Keep in mind, too, this was under the old points system. There was a maximum of 185 points to be gained per race (if the three drivers ahead of you were kind enough to stay home) and with six races left, old Quickie was TWO HUNDRED SEVENTY-EIGHT points out of the lead. Put out the fire and call in the dogs… this one was over. Only it wasn’t. Brothers and sisters, I didn’t read this in a dusty old history text Brian France hauled to the landfill. I watched it unfold over the course of the next couple months.
Bill Elliott left Dover with a 154-point lead over Allison. Kulwicki was fourth, and as I might have mentioned, he was TWO HUNDRED SEVENTY- EIGHT POINTS out of the lead. Even Alan, the ultimate optimist but eternal pragmatist, admitted his chances at a title were all but over.
The next week’s race at Martinsville was rain-delayed until Monday. A blown engine cost Elliott dearly, as he finished 30th in a 31-car field. Davey Allison spun out twice and finished 16th, while Kulwicki drove to a fifth place finish. When the smoke cleared, Elliott led Allison by 112 points and Kulwicki by a still sobering 191 points.
The following Sunday’s race at North Wilkesboro was also rain-delayed until Monday. The event was another disaster for Elliott. He didn’t wreck and he didn’t suffer mechanical problems. The car was just more out to lunch then Andy Griffith on opening day of trout season. He finished 26th, eight laps off the pace. That never happened to Junior Johnson-owned cars at a track Johnson considered “His House.” Allison finished 11th, while Kulwicki finished 12th. And the race was on…here comes Pride in the backstretch.
But Elliott loyalists were confident with the circuit returning to a superspeedway next on the schedule (Charlotte). Elliott, a superspeedway master, was going to rally and dispatch the pretenders. The Awesome One did, in fact, have a good run until a sway bar tore free of its mount, dropping him to a 30th place finish 24 laps off the race pace. By comparison, Allison’s 19th place finish, a mere five laps back, looked good. But it was Kulwicki — who coasted to a second place finish behind Mark Martin — that made up the most points. Elliott left Charlotte 39 points ahead of Allison, with Kulwicki a still substantial 114 points out of the lead. Mark Martin, Harry Gant, and Kyle Petty were suddenly back in the hunt. And “bidness,” friends and neighbors, was just picking up with three races left to run.
Fans newer to the sport might be surprised to learn that Kyle Petty, the same Kyle Petty shown the door so unceremoniously last year at the once family team, led all but eight laps at Rockingham the following race. As such, Petty advanced to fourth in the standings, only 94 points behind Elliott and a mere nine points behind the Comeback Kid, Alan Kulwicki. Elliott led three laps (Kulwicki and Allison failed to lead a lap) and finished fourth, helping to calm his increasingly panicked fans and crew chief Tim Brewer. (Yeah, that Tim Brewer, with the creepy haircut and all the gold on his fingers.) Allison struggled home to a 10th place finish, two laps off the pace. Kulwicki was even slower, posting a 12th place result. So Bill Elliott left Rockingham with a 70-point lead over Davey Allison and, given the Junior Johnson teams’ record in title fights, the 1992 Cup championship seemed all but in the bag.
But remember the old saying about enumerating your fowl before gestation? It was at Phoenix that disaster struck Bill Elliott and the No. 11 Bud team. Early on in the race, ominous smoke began belching from the tail pipes, and Bill had to limp the nearly terminal engine to a 31st place finish, 52 laps off the pace. A season full of hope, promise, and occasional domination was rising into the Arizona sky in tiny white whiffs. Alan Kulwicki led 49 laps at Phoenix before fading late to a fourth place finish. Davey Allison, using a strong Yates engine and a heads up call to remain on the track when a caution flew with twenty-three laps left to go, even as his Ford threatened to run out of gas, went on to win the race. Allison and Kulwicki’s title chances rose like the mythical bird out of the flames in the city that bore its name. Allison left Phoenix 30 points ahead of Kulwicki with Elliott third in the standings, a further 10 points behind. To add a little more spice to the mix, neither Davey nor Alan had ever won at Atlanta. Bill, a Georgia native, had won there four times, including the Spring race of that year by a mere 18 seconds. To ice the cake, Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, and Harry Gant were still legitimately in title contention as well if the leaders faltered. NASCAR stats is ballyhooing the fact this week there are still six drivers inside 100 points of the lead just three races into the Chase. In 1992, there were still six drivers within 113 points of the prize with one race left to run…and that’s without any artificial contrivances like resetting the points late in the season. Add in the fact Atlanta would mark The King, Richard Petty’s, final stock car race and that it would be Jeff Gordon’s first, you had more plotlines than eight seasons of the Shield on FX. (Though, at the risk of irritating some Jeff Gordon fans, he was an asterisk to the big event, notable only in the rear-view mirror of history. The skinny-ass white kid with the cheesy moustache, bad haircut, and ugly race car was only notable at that point for having screwed over Ford — they had groomed him to be a star before he signed with Rick Hendrick and Chevrolet.)
Most of you know how the story played out November 15th at Atlanta. If you don’t, you can buy David Poole’s book on the topic. But here’s the highlights…
Davey Allison needed only to finish fifth or better to clinch the title. He was running fifth when Ernie Irvan wrecked and took Allison out of the race and title contention. (Though oddly enough, Irvan would one day race the No. 28 Havoline car out of Yates’ stable.) Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott raced side-by-side much of the race, the way a title was intended to be settled. They raced hard but clean, each of them scrapping for every inch of space on the track, not only racing for the win, but in a desperate bid to lock up the five points for leading the most laps. That matter was eventually settled by a margin of about six inches, with Kulwicki getting the nod. Elliott then asserted himself in the race, and Kulwicki’s crew chief Paul Andrews wasn’t sure that the team had gotten enough gas in the car to finish the race on the last pit stop. The team calculated that Alan had to finish second to Elliott to claim the title, but at the same time, he had to save gas while Geoff Bodine was closing fast. Even when the checkers flew, some of us weren’t sure who had won the title. In the end, Alan Kulwicki prevailed by 10 points over Elliott. Had Bill led two more laps (and he easily could have by pitting late), he’d have taken the five points for leading the most laps and the twosome would have ended up tied. Elliott would have been champion based on the first tie-breaker, most wins that season. Yeah, it was that close. If only Davey had missed Irvan… if only Bill had stayed out two more laps before pitting…
Tragically, most of you know the aftermath of this story as well. Both Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were fated to die in aircraft accidents before the end of the 1993 season. Bill Elliott would soldier on, but he’d never contend for another title and never finished in the top 5 in points again.
It’s hard for me to find a way to convey how exciting, and in fact fun, it was to be a stock car racing fan in the Fall of 1992. The schedule was still a more manageable and exciting 29 races long, but there was plenty of room left for two races at North Wilkesboro, the Rock, and Darlington. Fords still looked like Fords, Chevys like Chevys, and Pontiacs like Pontiacs. Your granny could have told them apart without putting on her reading glasses. Points weren’t reset with 10 races to go or five races to go or even for the final race. A championship was still the embodiment of a season-long string of successes, with one race as important as another. There was no Chase, no Car of Sorrow, and no Fontana. The beer, bikes, and smokes were cheaper, the girls were prettier, and the sun shined a little brighter as it set on a pair of stock cars running into the fourth turn of a Fall afternoon side by side, fenders clanging and tires smoking as they dueled for a win. Yes, indeed, the “Good Old Days” were that good. And if you’re going to try to convince me otherwise, preface your remarks by admitting back in 1992 you were still learning to pinch one into the potty or busy pursuing other pursuits, like holistic pottery glazing, on Sunday afternoons.
Stock car racing will likely never be as pure, as exciting, or as good as it was that one November afternoon back in 1992. But trust me my friends, that day it was very, very good.
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