It may be the greatest season NASCAR has ever had. The 1992 season was one that changed the sport in many ways. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Richard Petty was in the midst of his fan appreciation tour, marking the end of his 35-year career. Petty made the announcement during the 1991 season and from the get-go it was unlike anything this sport has ever seen.
Fans flocked to the racetracks to pay tribute to their hero. Every racetrack that year had tributes to Petty and fans were dressed in their blue and orange merchandise to root for the King one last time. Petty’s season on the track was filled with struggles and misfortunes, but the fan appreciation tour proved that the King wasn’t just that on the track, but off of it as well.
It wasn’t just Petty’s retirement that made the 1992 season so special. The season would also be remembered for an epic points battle between three NASCAR legends. However, in order to understand the points battle of 1992, you have to look back some key changes that occurred during 1991.
One of the major players for the championship throughout the 1992 season was fan favorite Bill Elliott. Elliott was in a new ride for the first time in his career driving Junior Johnson’s famous No. 11 car. He had discussed with Johnson to drive his No. 11 car prior to the 1987 season but those talks stalled, and Elliott returned to the family ran Harry Melling operation for ’87 and beyond. He won the championship in 1988 and stayed with the team through 1991.
Yet, the team and car that made Elliott famous had its struggles in 1991. They were still reeling from the impact of a devastating pit road accident at the end of the 1990 season that resulted in the death of pit crew member Mike Ritch. Ritch was changing Elliott’s right rear tire under a caution period when Ricky Rudd lost control of his car and spun. He got pinned between the two cars and died as a result of his injuries. The incident had a devastating effect on the tight-knit Harry Melling team. Dan Elliott, Bill’s brother, was the front tire changer that day and retired due to the tragedy.
The sport had changed, and the magic the Elliott’s had at the end of the 1980s was beginning to fade. The 1991 season was a season marked by mechanical failures and disappointment. Elliott finished 11th in points, the first time since 1982 that he had finished outside the top 10 in the championship standings.
That led to some changes. Elliott was moving to the iconic No. 11 car for the 1992 season and the Harry Melling team was no longer run by the Elliott family. It was a fresh start for the Georgia native, who at 35 years old, was looking to jump start his career.
Another important change that took place in 1991 that had an impact in 1992 was on the No. 28 Robert Yates Racing team with driver Davey Allison. Entering the 1991 season, Allison had established himself as one of the premier drivers in NASCAR. From 1987-1990, Allison won eight races but had finished in the top 10 in points just one time. They knew the horsepower was there, Robert Yates’ engines had been a force in NASCAR for nearly 20 years.
They knew they had the driver. Allison had won at several different racetracks in his career and proved he had what was needed to be a top-notch driver. What they hadn’t found yet was the right crew chief to mix with Allison. The team tried several different options early in Davey’s career, including hiring veteran crew chief ‘Suitcase’ Jake Elder for the 1990 season.
Entering 1991 Elder was still turning the wrenches, but after a slow start, the team realized a change needed to be made. Heading into the fifth race of the season at Darlington Raceway, the Robert Yates Racing team made a change that finally turned the operation into a championship contender. The team hired crew chief Larry McReynolds. McReynolds had been working the King Racing team since 1986, winning races with both Rudd and Brett Bodine.
McReynolds brought stability to the team and the relationship between Allison and him blossomed from the beginning. Allison finished runner-up in his first race with McReynolds and the team took off. They would rebound from the tough start to the season to finish third in points in 1991 and recorded five victories. It was the best season of Allison’s career. It was clear, entering the 1992 season, the No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford was considered as one of the favorites to win the championship.
Alan Kulwicki was also coming into the 1992 season with a fresh outlook. Kulwicki was never considered a championship contender in his career, but a big break in the 1991 season helped get his team to the point where they could be.
Kulwicki was the last of a dying breed. He was an owner-driver, an independent. In the late 1980s he was approached by several big-name car owners, including Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick, to drive one of their cars. He had turned them down because he wanted to make it as an owner driver.
The challenges for a driver to be making all the business decisions and also working to make the cars go fast was a lot to ask. Plus, Kulwicki was a racer, he didn’t come with a ton of money, nor a prestigious racing background like many of the owners did. He made his name on the ASA circuit, and many thought him starting his own team was a way to establish himself in the Cup Series before making a jump to a bigger team. He won the 1986 Rookie of the Year Award, but had just two wins to his name entering the 1991 season.
A bigger problem, though, was that long-time sponsor Zerex left the team after the 1990 season. Early in 1991, Kulwicki had no sponsor but was determined to run full-time to try and attract a sponsor. That’s eventually what happened.
Hooters Restaurants was a supporter of a little-known driver named Mark Stahl. Stahl was scheduled to run the full 1991 season with Hooters support, but he had a tough time making races. Stahl failed to qualify for the first four events, the last one coming at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the hometown track of the sponsor.
Kulwicki took the pole that day and Hooters saw an opportunity. They put their logo on his car and began a relationship with him moving forward. He finished the 1991 season well, winning at Bristol Motor Speedway. With Hooters committed to a multi-year agreement, it was time for Kulwicki to take him and his team to the next level.
It was obvious from the start the Elliott/Johnson combination was going to be a force to be reckon with. Elliott started second in the Daytona 500, alongside teammate Sterling Marlin. During the early stages of The Great American Race, both Elliott and Marlin were the cars to beat. An accident on the backstretch on lap 93 involved 13 cars including both of Johnson’s cars. Not involved in the wreck was Davey Allison, who instantly became the top contender that afternoon.
Allison dominated the event from lap 100. The only challenger he had was Morgan Shepherd, who was trying to pass him in the closing stages. He held him off and Allison won his first Daytona 500 and set his 1992 campaign in motion.
Following Daytona, the No. 11 team would rattle off four consecutive victories. Elliott dominated Rockingham and then beat Kulwicki at the line to win Richmond Raceway. At Atlanta, pit strategy aided him to his third consecutive victory, and he would win Darlington after leading the final 45 laps.
It was an impressive start for the team, but they still didn’t lead the points. That title went to Allison, who followed his Daytona 500 victory with four consecutive top-five finishes. At Bristol, Allison’s championship hopes took a major hit for the first time. During a practice session, Allison crashed hard and tore cartilage in his rib cage. He would start the race at Bristol, but was later relieved by Sterling Marlin, who had crashed earlier in the event.
It was a symbol of Allison’s season. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He would win the following weekend’s race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where he’d wear a rib brace and drove the race in a ton of pain. He’d win at Talladega in April and heading into the Winston — NASCAR’s All-Star Race — Allison led the points and was a favorite for the championship.
Elliott, meanwhile, began to have some issues. After his four consecutive victories the No. 11 team began to struggle. He wrecked at Bristol, eliminating the best short track car the Junior Johnson team had, and it was clear the speed from early in the season was just not there. Still, he was second in the standings heading into the Winston.
Then there was Kulwicki, who never showed a ton of pizzazz but was always consistent. He’d win Bristol in dominating fashion, and that would put his team on a string of consistent finishes. By the time of the Winston, Kulwicki was fourth in points.
The 1992 Winston is a race that will be remembered as the first time the event was run under the lights. The All-Star like event had gone dull in the years prior and to add some juice and to keep the title sponsor of the race interested, Charlotte Motor Speedway decided to add lights to their facility. The Winston would be the featured event. It was a risky proposition as no one had ever lit a 1.5-mile track before, but the race did not disappoint.
Davey Allison led every lap of the first segment. Kyle Petty did the same in segment two. When it came time for the final 10-lap segment, three black cars were in-front and it was shaping up to be an all-time finish.
When the field came around to take the white flag, Dale Earnhardt led Kyle Petty by a car length with Allison in third trailing closely behind. Petty closed the gap in turns 1 and 2 and had a run on Earnhardt going down the backstretch. He shot to the inside of Earnhardt, who drove Petty down to the banking. Meanwhile, Allison closed in on both of them and something was going to have to give.
As they entered turn 3, Earnhardt lost control of his No. 3 car and was sent into a slide. Petty slowed to avoid the spinning No. 3 car and Allison came with a head of steam off of turn 4. Allison edged in front of Petty by a nose at the start-finish line to win the Winston.
Then, contact between Petty and Allison sent Allison hard into the outside wall. As announcer Buddy Baker said on the broadcast, “He won the race but he sure paid the price for it.” Allison’s car was destroyed, and it laid at the bottom of the track facing the wrong direction.
What had become the best finish in NASCAR All-Star Race history suddenly turned as many spectators wondered the fate of Allison. He was transported to a local hospital. Just a few weeks after a bad crash at Bristol and one at Martinsville Speedway, Allison had yet another scary accident.
He escaped the deal with a bruised lung and a concussion. Battered and bruised, Allison was going to race the Coca-Cola 600 the following week and try and continue his pursuit for the championship.
Speaking of Earnhardt, his 1992 season was a season to forget. He won the Coca-Cola 600 in May and found himself second in the standings leaving Sears Point in June. However, that is where the tailspin began. Engine issues caused four DNFs in the final 17 events and other issues plagued the team as well. After an engine failure at Martinsville dropped the team to 12th in the standings with just five races to go, it was clear another championship year was not going to happen for Earnhardt. That season marked the final year for crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine with the team as Richard Childress Racing would hire Andy Petree as crew chief prior to the 1993 season.
Meanwhile, the points battle continued to be hot and heavy all season long. Allison led by 46 points over Elliott when the season moved to Pocono in July. Kulwicki, who had won at Pocono Raceway earlier in the year, trailed Allison by 136 points.
Davey’s season would take yet another frightening turn at the Tricky Triangle. It had been six weeks since his accident at Charlotte, and for the first time since his accident at Bristol, Allison was starting to feel good. The No. 28 Ford took the pole and was dominating the event in the first 130 laps. A caution put Allison a little deeper in the field due to pit strategy on lap 149. He was racing Darrell Waltrip for the fifth spot, when contact between the two sent Allison into a spin coming off of turn 2.
Allison’s car picked up air, spun around and began to topple over, eight to 10 times. The car was mangled. It was a frightening scene. The carnage was so bad that fellow driver Mark Martin radioed into his team and said they should get a body bag ready because no one could have survived that crash.
At the same track that nearly claimed his father’s life four years earlier, Allison’s car laid mangled and battered. Fans and media members alike wondered if a similar fate had happened. It was his third major crash in four months.
He survived the incident, but he didn’t get away unscathed. Allison was diagnosed with a broken and dislocated right wrist, a broken right forearm, a broken right collarbone and a severally bruised face. He had multiple surgeries where two screws were inserted into his wrist and plates were used to reconnect both bones in his forearm. He was released from the hospital on Friday and immediately flew down to Talladega for the next race.
In order to get points and keep his championship hopes alive, Allison had to start the race, as NASCAR rules stated that the driver who started the race earned the points. Bobby Hillin Jr. was announced as the relief driver for Allison, as it was clear he would not be able to go the full distance.
Allison started the race, and a brief rain storm on lap 5 brought out a caution and allowed Allison to get out of the car and Hillin to get in. Hillin would drive the No. 28 car to a third-place finish and retake the points lead for Allison, who had lost it following the previous week’s accident. A week off after Talladega allowed Allison to mend a bit further, but more heartbreak would occur just a few weeks later.
When the series entered Michigan International Speedway in August, Elliott led Allison by 17 points. Elliott’s season had been up and down since the start of the year, but he had taken the points lead and was going to one of his best racetracks. Kulwicki was still showing consistency. He trailed by 91 points in third.
Allison was still healing from his injuries but was planning on running the full event for the first time since Pocono. However, the weekend took a sudden turn on Thursday. Clifford Allison, Davey’s only brother, was practicing for the NASCAR Busch Series event when he blew a tire and hit the outside wall head-on between turns 3 and 4. He died on the way to the hospital.
The accident had a devastating effect on Davey Allison. He decided to run that weekend’s race at Michigan and then fly home to Hueytown, Ala., for the services on Monday. Allison finished fifth, two spots behind Elliott, who stretched his points lead to 37 points leaving Michigan.
The up-and-down year for Allison would continue a few weeks later at Darlington for the running of the Southern 500. After winning the Daytona 500 and the Winston 500 at Talladega, Allison was eligible for the Winston Million. The deal was that if a driver could win three of the four crown jewel events of NASCAR, title sponsor R.J. Reynolds would give the driver $1 million. Elliott accomplished this feat in 1985, and Allison was trying to become only the second driver to do it since it was instituted seven years earlier.
The No. 28 car was strong all day long, and Allison found himself running second late in the event with rains approaching. Crew Chief Larry McReynolds told a pit crew member to look at the radar and see if the rain was going to be bad enough to end the race or if it was just a passing shower.
As legend goes, the crew member told McReynolds that it was clear. Allison pitted from the second position, and Darrell Waltrip ended up with the lead. A few laps later, the rains came and the caution came out with Allison in the fifth spot. Later, it was realized the pit crew member could not read radar and thought green meant the forecast was clear. The decision to pit cost Allison a shot at a million dollars. He also lost points to Bill Elliott, who finished third.
Elliott’s lead would stretch to 137 points after his runner-up finish at Dover International Speedway. And after an accident in that race, Kulwicki trailed by 278 points. However, the Dover race was a monumental turning point for both teams.
Elliott was dominating the Dover event when on the final pit stop, a disagreement occurred between Johnson and crew chief Tim Brewer. As legend goes, the debate in the pits was to take two tires or four tires. Second place driver Ricky Rudd had taken two, and Elliott and his team had a decision to make. Ultimately, four tires was the call, and the No. 11 lost the lead. Elliott ran out of laps to catch race winner Rudd. The decision, no matter who made the call, cost Elliott the victory and had lasting effects on the team. The long relationship that Johnson and Brewer had was destroyed, and they didn’t speak to each other the rest of the year. For the 1993 season, Brewer moved to Bill Davis Racing and Mike Beam took over as crew chief of the No. 11 car.
Coincidence or not, from that point forward, the No. 11 team was never the same. The next three races, the team had mechanical issues, and at North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track where Johnson’s team usually dominated, the team finished 26th after a horrendous day.
Elliott’s lead shrank to 39 points. Allison closed in, but it was Kulwicki who really capitalized off Elliott’s misfortunes. He recorded two top fives including a second at Charlotte. He closed the points gap considerable, and after overheating issues derailed Elliott’s day at Phoenix, the points battle was as tight as ever heading into the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ultimately, six drivers had a mathematical chance at the championship going into the final race at Atlanta. Only Elliott, Allison and Kulwicki had a realistic chance, though. Entering the race, Allison led Kulwicki by 30 points and Elliott by 40 points. No matter what happened, the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta was going to be a race everyone remembered for years to come, and that’s exactly what it became.
The pre-race festivities included Richard Petty’s children: son Kyle and daughters Sharon, Lisa and Rebecca giving the command to start the engines. “Daddy, Start Your Engine,” the foursome said with tears rolling down their faces. It was the 1184th and final start of Petty’s career. His 1992 season on the track was a tough one. Entering Atlanta, he was 26th in the standings, and his best finish were two 15th-place runs, coming at Talladega and Michigan. Petty led the field on the pace laps to honor his legendary career before dropping back to his 39th-place starting position.
And while the sun set on one legend’s career, a future legend made his Cup Series debut. Jeff Gordon had a big year driving the full Busch Series schedule for Bill Davis Racing in 1992. The 20-year-old driver from Vallejo, Calif., won three races and finishing fourth in the standings. Gordon was supposed to move to the Cup Series with Davis, but instead struck a deal with car owner Rick Hendrick to run the full 1993 season and beyond. Gordon started his first race from 21st.
But as the green flag approached, all eyes were on the championship race. Elliott rolled off from the 11th spot with Kulwicki starting 14th and Allison 17th.
The action started early when pole sitter Rick Mast and outside pole sitter Brett Bodine got together on lap 1. Six cars were involved in the accident, including Allison, who got significant damage on the left rear of his car. The No. 28 team was able to fix it and continue, but Allison lost some track position due to the incident.
Allison wasn’t the only one of the contenders having issues. On the first pit stop of the day, Kulwicki lost first gear, and his pit crew would have to push him out of the pits for the remainder of the race. The problem wouldn’t hurt Kulwicki at speed, but on restarts and pit stops, he was at a major disadvantage. Not even 50 laps into the race and both Kulwicki and Allison had obstacles to overcome.
On lap 96, another major incident happened and this time it involved Petty, whose car caught on fire and came to a rest on the inside of the track. He got out of the car to a round of applause, as many thought his legendary driving career ended right there. While the Hooters 500 was already eventful, it would get a lot more interesting on lap 254.
Allison was running in fifth, and after overcoming a couple of early issues, was finally in a spot where his team could feel comfortable when their season came to an abrupt end. Ernie Irvan blew a tire and spun in directly in front of the No. 28. Allison had no place to go and slammed into Irvan’s No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet. Both cars went spinning into the inside wall. The damage on Allison’s car was heavy, and the No. 28 car had to be towed to the garage. The dream of winning the championship was over for Allison. He eventually returned to the race but finished 27th, dropping him to third in the point standings.
The championship race was now down to Elliott and Kulwicki. Throughout the race, both drivers swapped the lead multiple times. One of the big factors of the race was who was going to lead the most laps, as it carried an additional five-point bonus.
As the final pit stop approached, Kulwicki was in front and led one more lap than his team wanted him to, as they were afraid he was going to run out of gas. The gamble paid off as it was that one lap that made the difference. Kulwicki led the most laps, and that 10-point swing was huge. Elliott was now in the lead, but as long as Kulwicki finished second, he would be the champion.
That’s exactly what happened. Elliott took the victory and Kulwicki finished second. It was an emotional victory lane celebration for Kulwicki, who proved everyone that an owner-driver could still win the championship. It was a gratifying day for the No. 7 team, but for Elliott, it was bittersweet. The No. 11 team won their fifth race of the year but lost the championship. Kulwicki won by a mere 10 points.
Lost in the excitement of the championship battle was the No. 43 car of Petty returning to the track. Petty’s car now had no sheet metal on the front and entered the track on the final lap to finish the race and his career. After the track cleared, Petty gave his fans one more lap, waving to the fans one last time and saying goodbye to the fans he loved so much. Country band Alabama played a song named “Richard Petty Fans” as a tribute to the racing legend.
The 1992 season was one of the most memorable in NASCAR history. What makes the 1992 season even more remarkable was what happened in 1993.
On April 1, 1993, Kulwicki and three others would die in a plane crash heading to Bristol, Tenn. Just a few short months later, Allison would pass away in a helicopter crash at Talladega. Two of the three championship contenders for 1992 were gone by the time the next championship was crowned. Both drivers would be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019.
Kulwicki’s race team was sold to Geoff Bodine in the middle of the 1993 season and Robert Yates Racing hired Ernie Irvan to drive the No. 28 car in 1994. The organization would eventually win a championship in 1999 with driver Dale Jarrett. But for all involved with RYR in 1992, that season still stings to this day. Team owner Robert Yates found out he would be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame shortly before passing away on Oct. 2, 2017.
As for Elliott, 1992 was his final chance at a championship. The No. 11 team never again found the success it had in 1992. Elliott won just one more race with the Junior Johnson team. Elliott would move on to run his own race team in 1995 and eventually retire from full-time competition after the 2003 season. He has 44 career wins and is now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Legendary car owner Johnson never again competed for a championship after 1992. After the 1995 season, Johnson closed the doors of his shop and sold his operation. He was honored as an inaugural member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame along with Petty. Johnson passed away on Dec. 20, 2019.
The 1992 season is a special season and one that race fans will never forget. It had a big impact on the sport, and we’ll never see a season like it ever again.