While the 1992 NASCAR season is seen as the most pivotal year in the modern era of NASCAR, what followed in 1993 set the stage for the next two decades of competition, thrusting the sport from burgeoning regional underground sport to one of national prominence.
Key events, new tracks, personalities and accomplishments help define the 1993 season, as the foundation for what we have come to know of benchmarks for greatness, rebirths of careers, redemption and loss. Let’s take a look back through a season that holds many memories for millions of motorsports fans.
The season had storylines that included: The season opening Daytona 500 remains one of the most memorable in the history of The Great American Race. One of the greatest rookie classes in history with Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace and Todd Bodine all contending. Dale Earnhardt trying to rebound from a disappointing 1992 season that saw him finish 12th in points, recording only one win, and long-time crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, who was the team leader for four of his then five championships, had resigned. The first Daytona 500 without Richard Petty in 44 years. Rookie Jeff Gordon would win his first ever Twin 125-mile qualifying race, while all eyes were on Earnhardt to finally break through and win the elusive crown jewel race that would define his career. A mid-race wreck triggered by Al Unser, Jr. sliding across Earnhardt’s nose, led to one of the more iconic — if not hilarious — moments in NASCAR post-wreck reasoning.
What would result would be “The Dale and Dale Show,” as Ned Jarrett called the final lap coaching his son through the monitor to victory. Coming to the white flag, Jarrett was able to get underneath Earnhardt and held off a charge by Geoff Bodine, who had no drafting help and a hole in his right front headlight area. Earnhardt would have to wait another five years before he’d breakthrough, but Joe Gibbs Racing would earn its first win and establish Jarrett as more than just a journeyman driver with a one-win resume.
The race was witness to one of the most memorable superspeedway accidents, as Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac tumbled down the backstretch, a crash more of physics and rolling over to the right rather than the traditional left-spin, with aero lift. Wallace would emerge with bruises, a cut chin, but otherwise unscathed.
Wallace would redeem himself a week later with a half-second win over Earnhardt at Rockingham Speedway, site of a championship defining get together in the fall of 1989 between the two drivers. It would be the first of 10 victories for Wallace in ’93, as the Penske team won the most races that season.
At Richmond Raceway, Davey Allison lead 157 laps en route to his lone win of the season. Following a harrowing 1992 season that saw him injured in The Winston All-Star Race following a photo finish win over Kyle Petty and again in one of the most violent and longest crashes in NASCAR history a month later at Pocono Raceway, he was denied an opportunity at the championship after a late race crash in Atlanta Motor Speedway. All eyes were on Allison for 1993 as the odds-on favorite to win his first Winston Cup. At Richmond, Allison passed Kyle Petty, who had dominated the first half of the race with 156 laps to go, winning by over four seconds over Rusty Wallace.
As of today, all of us are now unfortunately familiar with delayed races this season. In 1993, everybody was shocked when Saturday night there was a blizzard that pushed through Georgia. Six inches of snow blanketed the track and blew into the garage stalls, pushing the race back a week. Once things got back underway, Mark Martin checked out on the field, leading 180 of the first 225 laps of the 328-lap race.
Gordon then looked to be the car to beat, but late in the race he drove in a bit too hard trying to lap Jimmy Spencer, making contact with the rear bumper of Mr. Excitement. It knocked the grille in, creating aero lift and reducing downforce and would affect the car in the race. Forced to stop for a splash of fuel with 12 laps to go, it spoiled his chance, for what looked like might be his first win in just his fifth start. Somewhat of a surprise in victory lane in this race, however, would be Morgan Shepherd, who would win the last of his four career victories, and the first win in three years for the Wood Brothers.
Darlington Raceway used to have two dates, and the spring race named the TranSouth 500 was next on the docket. Earnhardt rallied from being one lap down, having a back and forth battle with Mark Martin trying to stay on the lead lap. He was able to hold off the No. 6 and No. 42 of Kyle Petty just long enough until he could catch a caution and get a lap back. On lap 179, Jimmy Means had an engine let go and Earnhardt was still ahead of the leader, getting back in position to contend and ultimately pull off the win.
Back then there was no free pass or waive around, so drivers had to race the leaders to get their lap back. When fans lament the races of yesteryear, it’s because of performances like this from Earnhardt. The first win of the year was a trademark one for the toughest of customers, and a rally back from the doldrums of 1992. It was clear this early in the season, the Man in Black was back, and was a threat to win his sixth championship.
When the series rolled into Thunder Valley it was under a dark cloud: figuratively and literally. On their way to an appearance at a Hooter’s restaurant, defending champion Alan Kulwicki and three others were killed in a private plane crash. Iced wings were found to be the cause of the crash, just short of the airport they were destined for. As it rained Saturday, nobody seemed to care. The No. 7 Alan Kulwicki Racing hauler passed under the checkered flag before it exited the track. The race on Sunday was between Wallace and Earnhardt, it was fitting that a fellow driver from the midwest would win. Wallace honored Kulwicki with his signature self-titled “Polish Victory Lap,” waiving to the fans.
The win was the start of a three-race streak for Wallace, knocking three short track wins in a row, following his triumphs with victories at Martinsville Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. He was particularly dominant at Martinsville, leading 409 of 500 laps, leaving only three other drivers on the lead lap.
Anytime there is a column or topic citing the most memorable races of all time, I always cite the 1993 Winston 500 at Talladega. Running under the threat of a thunderstorm the entire event, lighting could be seen off in the distance prior to the start of the race. Martin’s car wouldn’t fire on the grid, so his crew chief Steve Hmiel had to jump in and basically hot wire it so it would fire. While most superspeedway races of this era were often single-file affairs, this race more closely resembled the three and four-wide madness that we’ve come to expect from races at Talladega over the last two decades. Things were so chaotic in the opening laps that Benny Parsons gave up trying to cover it all, and ESPN just showed the race for two laps without commentary.
The end of the race would serve as the prototypical green-white-checkered finish, as the race restarted with just two laps to go. Cars were low on fuel towards the end, Earnhardt and Martin running out of fuel, slipping backwards through the field. Coming to the line, Ernie Irvan was able to hold off Spencer for the win. For Irvan, it was coming full circle, at the race where he caused a massive wreck on the backstretch, breaking Kyle Petty’s leg, and asking drivers for their forgiveness and a second change at respect when the series returned that summer to Talladega. As Irvan crossed the stripe, Rusty Wallace tried to block a run by Earnhardt, causing him to spin sideways and get launching down the front stretch, with the car crossing the finish line on its nose.
Earnhardt, concerned for the well-being of his friend, pulled up to check on him and took his gloves to help show everyone that he was okay. Wallace ended up with only a broken wrist, and was able to race the following week in Sonoma.
The series added a new track for 1993, the Magic Mile in New Hampshire. Wallace’s mastery of short and flat tracks continued as he led 106 laps, with Martin second and Davey Allison in third. The race was significant for another, darker reason. It would be the last race that Allison would compete in.
A few days later, Allison was approaching to land his personal helicopter within the infield at Talladega with fellow Alabama Gang member Red Farmer. They were there to watch another member, Neil Bonnett, test a Busch Grand National car with his son David Bonnett, for David’s Busch Series debut. As the helicopter was landing, it was a few feet from the ground when it suddenly shot up and rolled over, and crashed into the ground. Farmer survived the accident with only a broken arm, but Allison would succumb to his injuries, passing away at the age of 32.
The following week at Pocono Raceway was somber to say the least. Earnhardt took the win and did a reverse victory lap, similar to Wallace at Bristol, but holding a No. 28 flag. At the start-finish line, the No. 3 team held a quick prayer in memorial. It was yet another installment in what was proving to be an emotional and trying season. A week later, Earnhardt won again in Alabama Gang country, edging out Irvan by .005 seconds. Coincidentally, it would be Irvan who would be chosen to replace Allison as the full-time pilot of the No. 28 three races later at Darlington. This was a bit ironic, as it was Irvan who lost control in Atlanta the prior November, collecting Allison and denying the No. 28 team the championship that year.
At this point in the season, Earnhardt had just won his fifth race of the year and had a commanding 234-point lead over Jarrett for the championship. That would be one full race of maximum points and almost another 50 points to boot. To put that in today’s perspective, Earnhardt could take two weeks off and Jarret would have had to win one race and finish last in another, to at best pull even. Wallace had five wins as well, but a streak of four DNFs earlier in the year that had him mired almost another 100 points behind Jarrett. Heading to Watkins Glen International, it looked like it might be a good place for Wallace to get back on track.
Sitting fifth in points following the second Talladega race was Martin. During the weekend of the Sonoma event, Martin had dinner with team owner Jack Roush and told him he wanted out of his contract, allowing him elsewhere. Roush was taken aback, asking what he needed for him to stay. His concern was the cars were not being built to his requests, leaving a lot of speed on the table. What followed was an edict from Roush, is that they build a car to his demands. What resulted was, a radically raked body that raised the rear quarter panels and decklid of the car substantially, angled the nose down and flattened the fenders yet still met the templates. The intake spacer had to go because they couldn’t get the engine to fit otherwise. Sacrificing horsepower for downforce proved to be the right decision and a harbinger of things to come for the series.
What resulted was a four-race win streak starting at Watkins Glen. The car was a super light-weight affair built by the Hmiel led team. So lightweight that they couldn’t get the hood to close when it was on jack stands in the garage due to body flex. During the race, the car was in another league speed-wise, but the team had issues with the lug nuts on the right rear. This required a lengthy pit stop, forcing the team to remove the lugs with hand tools that required the No. 6 to have to tear through the field. With four laps to go he was running third as Kyle Petty was leading the field and Earnhardt in close pursuit. Petty bounced the No. 42 off the curbing in the esses, collecting Earnhardt as Martin split the two of them.
A week later at Michigan, the No. 6 car was again the class of the field, the team uttering the company line that the car’s ability to leap off the corners to just running more gear in the car and a higher RPM than the competition, but the raked body was proving it’s value. The following race at Bristol was similar to Watkins Glen: They were the class of the field, but lug nut issues again got the No. 6 team two laps down. Martin had to dig relentlessly to get back on the lead lap and then work through the field again to be in contention to win. Once he did get back on the lead lap, he had to battle with the absolute king of the short tracks of this era, Wallace.
Seeing Wallace and Martin battle at the end of the night at Bristol was like watching an ASA race at Slinger a decade earlier. Wallace led 409 of 500 laps, but Martin was able to work past with 12 laps to go. No last lap bump and run, no chop blocking from Wallace. An absolute clinic on how to race right by two future Hall of Famers with Midwest racing roots.
In Victory Lane, the car and driver were about in the same shape.
Wallace’s runner-up performance was still not enough to gain much ground at Earnhardt. After the race he quipped Earnhardt, “keeps on puttin’ along like a John Deere tractor,” trailing by 304 points. The No. 6 team would win one more race, the Southern 500 at Darlington, the week following. It would be the end of the four-race win streak (that is still the modern day record for consecutive wins) that saw the team move from 12th in points in June, to third in points and in title contention. It also helped cement the relationship between Martin and Jack Roush, which would see him driving the No. 6 car through the 2006 season.
Wallace returned to dominance again the following week at Richmond, despite Martin pacing the first half of the race. Earnhardt again finished third, preventing Wallace from gaining much ground on him, though he did whittle it down to at least under 300 points finally.
The 1993 race at Dover International Speedway would end up being the last race ran on asphalt before becoming the concrete bowl we’ve become accustomed to. Right front tires were failing at a 2008 Brickyard 400 pace this day, sending a number of cars into the wall or to the pits for unscheduled stops. This afflicted both Martin and Wallace, with Martin blowing a tire just past halfway, causing the car to catch fire and Wallace went down two laps after losing a tire. Wallace was able to make up those laps and drive through the field yet again.
If there was any lingering resentment following the accident at Talladega in May towards Earnhardt, Wallace may have evened the score a little on a restart with 129 laps to go. Either by incidental contact or a perfectly executed bank shot sent Spencer into Earnhardt, sending the No. 3 into the inside retaining wall.
As the Series headed to Martinsville, all eyes were on Wallace. He would run strong, but ultimately finish second this day. Following the passing of Davey Allison, the No. 28 Robert Yates team had Lake Speed act in a substitute role until a full-time driver could be found. Irvan’s first race with the No. 28 team was at the Southern 500 just three races earlier. Typically, new drivers need a few races to “gel” with their respective team and get to understand how to work with one another. That’s apparently all it took, as Irvan won the pole and lead 402 of 500 laps. Earnhardt had a rear gear failure and dropped out with 60 laps to go. This allowed Wallace to close within a manageable 82 points with six races remaining.
North Wilkesboro was next up and take a wild guess who won? Wallace led the final 101 laps to win his eighth race of the season. Unfortunately for him, the John Deere tractor in his rear view mirror was a familiar one, as Earnhardt continued his shadowing the 1989 champion, allowing Wallace to only gain another 10 points on Earnhardt with just five races left.
At Charlotte Motor Speedway, Irvan and the RYR team dominated the day, leading 328 laps, winning for the second time in three races on two different types of tracks. He won by nearly two seconds over Martin, with Earnhardt and Wallace in third and fourth, respectively. Unfortunately for Wallace, he was unable to lead a lap, losing five of the 10 points he gained the week prior. At this point of year – and during this era — these four drivers were the dominant force in NASCAR. At Charlotte, only four drivers lead the race: Irvan, Earnhardt, Martin, with Gordon leading a lap during pit stops.
The final three races were a microcosm of the season. At Rockingham, Wallace again lead the most laps on the way to an uncontested win…with Earnhardt as usual, just a few seconds back of him. The penultimate race of the season at Phoenix Raceway saw Martin hold off a hard charging Irvan for his final win of the year, and a flip-flop of how the No. 6 and 28 finished the year prior. Wallace finished two laps down, losing over 50 points to Earnhardt, essentially sealing his fate.
Entering Atlanta, Wallace trailed Earnhardt by 126 points. In 1989, Earnhardt trailed Wallace by 79 points, led every lap, and Wallace had an off day and still won by 12 points. In this scenario, Earnhardt only needed to essentially start the race and not blow up and he’d bring home the title. As an insurance policy, Neil Bonnet qualified a third RCR car in 35th position. If Earnhardt’s car couldn’t start, he would then jump into Bonnet’s car. Things got off to a rocky start as Earnhardt wiped out his car in practice, as did rookie Jeff Gordon and Ken Schrader in his qualifying attempt.
On race day, things weren’t much better for the teams. Fog at the airport delayed a number of pit crew and support members being able to land at the airport and get to the racetrack on time. Roush Racing had 15 team members missing, Darrell Waltrip’s pit crew had not yet arrived by the time the race was going green and Wallace’s team showed up just as they were getting the command to start engines. Once underway, Wallace was able to move towards the front, avoiding trouble that plagued many: 11 cautions, eight for single-car accidents made for a long afternoon. Wallace would win the race and lead the most laps, scoring his 10th win of the season. It was the most races won in a season until Jeff Gordon would tie the mark in 1996 and 1997, before eclipsing it one year later with his 13-win season in 1998.
Earnhardt would finish fourth and capture his sixth Winston Cup championship, and third in four years. Despite Wallace’s heroics, the sheer number of Chevrolets prevented Pontiac from bringing home the manufacturer’s title. It would be the last year Wallace would drive a Pontiac, the one brand he had driven since becoming a full-time driver in 1986. In 1994 the team would move to Ford, in part due to some Chevrolet anger upon learning how much of the NASCAR budget was being directed to the Penske South Pontiacs.
Oh, and much to no one’s surprise, Gordon took home Rookie of the Year honors.
In the final 16 races, Earnhardt, Wallace, Martin and Irvan were the only drivers to post victories. While Irvan may have only had two of those wins, they were with a team that he joined only three races earlier. It was a dominant display by four drivers in three different makes of car and set the stage for how the 1994 season would shape up as well. Marred by the passing of its inspirational defending champion and one of its most popular drivers both of whom are still revered and missed today, 1993’s keystone moments cements it as one of the most important in NASCAR history.