1. NASCAR Sprint Cup (Winston Cup) Series, 1979
My favorite championship battle is 1979. If I could go back in time, I would go in a minute, and I would have it take me back to 1979. That was the year where a youngster named Darrell Waltrip and the King of NASCAR Richard Petty battled it out until the final race of the season. Waltrip won seven races that season and had led the points for the majority of the year. Richard Petty was going for his seventh championship and in a pre-race interview, you could clearly see the pressure was on the young Waltrip. Petty was calm, cool and collected, while Waltrip was anxious. He led by two points after 30 races heading into the Los Angeles Times 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway for the season finale. Ken Squier and CBS were there to cover it.
The race was a doozy. Petty did exactly what he had to do. He led a lap getting him five bonus points and Waltrip had to do the same. He stayed out under a caution and got his five points. However, that put him at the rear of the field and later on in the run Waltrip would spin, losing a lap. Later the DiGard Racing team and Waltrip would deny he lost a lap. It was too much for the team to overcome. Petty finished on the lead lap in fifth, while Waltrip finished eighth, the first car one lap down. Petty won the championship by a mere 11 points.
Petty was interviewed by Chris Econmacki after the race. On the final corner, Petty was driving the car hard, even though he had a big gap between him and the sixth-place driver Neil Bonnett. Petty’s interview was filled with joy and he stated that his desire to win any race he races. He was smiling from ear to ear.
Waltrip, meanwhile, was annoyed after a fantastic 1979 season that saw some controversy throughout, including the spin which put him a lap down. He described the situation to Squier from his perspective. The video below captures the joy of victory, between Petty and race winner Benny Parsons and the agony of defeat, in Darrell Waltrip.
It was racing at its best between two of the best to ever drive a stock car. –Clayton Caldwell, Staff Writer
2. IndyCar, 2002
This scenario has actually happened a handful of times in IndyCar – something in the water over there? – but this one was my favorite. It came down to the finish of the last race of the season in Texas back in 2002 between Sam Hornish, Jr. and Helio Castroneves (before they were teammates) and they both gave it every ounce they had. Hornish prevailed. Castroneves had to win the race to win the championship, Hornish had to be third. You could have tossed a blanket over both of them as they ran side by side in the closing laps with Hornish edging him for the win and the championship. –Toni Montgomery, NHRA Editor
3. NHRA Top Fuel, 2006
I’ve only been doing the drag racing game a few years, but you have to live under a rock to not have heard about The Run. 2006 and Tony Schumacher goes into Pomona just behind Doug Kalitta. Kalitta goes out–I think in the semifinals or maybe it was round 2–and I think it said in the video, opening the door for Schumacher BUT (and this is a big but) he didn’t just have to win the final.
No. That would have made it too easy for a guy who’d won the last two championships. No. He had to win the race AND set a new national record (they got points for that too and he needed those points). BUT that’s not all really–at the time, you had to have a run within one percent of the record setting run as a backup in order to actually be awarded the record. He had the backup run in his pocket already but that meant that he not only had to run fast enough to get the record, but he had to also make sure not to run TOO fast to put him outside that one percent or he wouldn’t have the record.
We are talking about a very precise window that’s only a few fractions of a second big. And you are trying to hit that very tiny window with a freakin’ 300 mph elephant gun. He did it and Kalitta ends up the bridesmaid instead. Here’s the video. –Toni Montgomery, NHRA Editor
4. NASCAR XFINITY Series, 1992
How about the XFINITY Series in 1992. Joe Nemechek and Bobby Labonte battled all season, and the title came down to three points. Labonte led 234 of 300 laps to win the season finale at Hickory, but Nemechek’s sixth-place finish was enough to take the title. Back in February that same year, Labonte helped Todd Bodine pull Nemechek out of his flaming Texas Pete Chevrolet after this huge crash in the season-opening Goody’s 300.
In Rick Houston’s Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series, Labonte was quoted as saying “We got [Nemechek] out, got him on the ground, and lifted his visor up to make sure he was breathing. You don’t sit there and say, ‘Well, what should I do here?’ You just do it.”
For Nemechek, he didn’t miss a race due to his injuries at Daytona. However, he wasn’t 100 percent afterward until the summer. Kenny Wallace was right up there as well until the SabCO team (Felix Sabates had purchased the operation at some point during the year) fell apart after Steve Bird left. Also, that season was so ridiculous. It had the aforementioned crash, the all-time record for cautions at Hickory in the Spring (which we’ve written about in the past), Jeff Burton getting DQ’d at then-Pulaski County Speedway (now MotorMile Speedway), the travesty that was the X-1R Firecracker 200 at Volusia County Speedway on the 4th of July, etc. –Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor
5. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, 2004
A personal favorite of mine is the 2004 championship battle in the Truck Series. The title fight was primarily between Bobby Hamilton, Dennis Setzer, Ted Musgrave, and Carl Edwards, with Hamilton coming out on top.
It is true that the Truck Series has featured championship races with more pure excitement. The 2004 season did not end with a razor-thin points gap between the top two (Hamilton won by 46 over Setzer in the old Latford system). What made that season stand out was the the mutual respect of the competitors. They raced hard but cleanly, pushing each each other to be at their best each week as the season wound down.
There were no points resets and no unnecessary drama, just three veterans and one rising star determined to claim the big prize. Additionally, the championship was a fitting reward for Hamilton, who built his Truck Series team from the ground up into a top-flight organization. Hamilton’s championship and the rise of BHR is one of the most underrated achievements in Truck Series history. –Bryan Gable, Staff Writer