How many storylines can you pack into a single race? In one race an era ended, a new era began, and six drivers fought for a championship. Let's get to it!
The King's Last Ride-
Richard Petty is the most successful driver in NASCAR history, with 200 wins, but by 1992 age had took its toll and his talents were dwindling. His last win came 8 years prior in the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona (in front of President Ronald Reagan) and he was struggling to qualify on a weekly basis. By the final race of the year, he had used all of his provisional starting spots and had to make the race on time alone. On Thursday's first round of qualifying, Petty was 36th quickest and was not locked into the race. He stood on his time for Friday's second round qualifying and narrowly made the field, starting 39th of 41 drivers. Because this was no normal weekend, there was an incident involving his crew chief, Dale Inman. The night before the race, Inman was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of his hotel. The gunman grabbed for Inman's necklace and pulled the trigger, but the pistol did not fire and Inman was uninjured.
In the race, Petty was caught up in a an accident on lap 95 of 328, hitting the rear of Rich Bickle's car, trying to avoid an accident ahead. Petty's car caught fire came to a rest in the infield, badly damaged. The crew worked diligently for the rest of the race, and with only 2 laps to go, the car emerged from the garage. It was missing all of the sheet metal from the front end, but could finish the race. Petty's last race ended with a 35th place finish and after the race completed one last lap as a salute to the fans. In a post race interview, Petty talked about the wreck and fire saying, "I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory; I just forgot about the glory part."
Some Jeff Gordon Guy's First Race-
As things go, people try to keep a bit of a low profile when doing something for the first time, and Jeff Gordon was no different in his first start. Prior to this race, Gordon drove for Busch Series (now Nationwide) owner Bill Davis in the #1 Baby Ruth car. In the 1992 season, Gordon won 11 pole positions, 3 races, and finished 4th in points. After his pole and win of the spring race at Atlanta, Gordon accepted a contract from Rick Hendrick. Gordon's race weekend went pretty quietly, qualifying 21st and finishing 31st after hitting the wall and retiring.
The Championship Contenders-
The 1992 season had six drivers eligible to win the championship at the final race of the season, the most of any pre-chase championship. Now lets get the the contenders
The points leader headed into the final race was Davey Allison, a miracle considering the circumstances of the season. Davey started the year winning the Daytona 500, and reeling off top 5 finishes in the next 4 races. He later won North Wilkesboro and Talladega. The first major hurdle came during The Winston, a non points event at Chralotte. On the last lap, battling for the win Davey was spun by Kyle Petty across the finish line, crossing first, and hit the wall hard. With his car crashed in the infield, he claimed to have an out of body experience, seeing the car below and a bright light above. When Allison woke up at the hospital, his first words were "Did we win?" and Larry McReynolds replied "Yes Davey, we did." Allison went on to race in the Coke 600 the next weekend, finishing 5th despite his injuries.
The next few races went fairly quietly, picking up another victory at Michigan, before another incident, this time at Pocono. Allison led 115 of the race's first 149 laps before a lengthy pit stop dropped him to mid pack. Charging through the field, his car made contact with Darrell Waltrip's and flipped violently, before landing on an interior guard rail. Allison suffered a severe concussion, and a broken collarbone, wrist, and arm. The next couple weeks, Allison was able to start the race and have relief drivers take over and finish for him.
He was primed to compete again for a full race when tragedy struck at Michigan. In practice for the Busch Series race, Davey's brother Clifford crashed hard in turn 3 and 4, sustaining fatal injuries. Distraught, Allison drove to a 5th place finish in the race.
The next portion of the season was relatively quiet with Allison trailing Bill Elliott, and both drivers swapping poor finishes while Alan Kulwicki closed in. Allison was able to surpass Elliot in the second to last race of the season, scoring another win at Phoenix. Headed into the final race at Atlanta, Allison held the points lead by 30 points over Alan Kulwicki. He only needed to finish 6th to mathematically lock up the championship.
Alan Kulwicki's season was quite a contrast to Allison's, staying relatively quiet most of the year. He was a bit of an odd duck in NASCAR as well, having a college degree, being from the North, and owning his own team. Early in the year, nobody really counted on Kulwicki being in the championship hunt, but victories at Bristol and Pocono kept him in the conversation. As the season drew on, a championship looked unlikely, trailing Bill Elliot by 278 points with only six races remaining. In those final weeks, Kulwicki reeled off a series of top 5 finishes, surpassed Elliott and only trailed Allison going into the finale. Despite being within striking distance for the final race, Kulwicki was mostly written off, and embraced his underdog status running has car as an "Underbird" instead of the normal Thunderbird
As a prior champion, "Winston Million" winner, and being one of the most popular drivers, Bill Elliot was a favorite to win it all in the last race. Elliott's season started fast winning the second, third, and fourth race of the year and running consistently near the front for the first half of the year. By mid August he had taken control of the points standings, passing Allison and stretching the lead to 154 points.
However, over the last five races Elliott's championship hopes began to sink. He finished worse than 26th in 4 of the races and both Allison and Kulwicki surpassed him in points.
Kyle Petty, Harry Gant, and Mark Martin were all mathematically eligible for the championship heading into the final race. However, for any of them to win, they would need all three drivers in front of them to suffer trouble which was unlikely.
Throughout the early portions of the race, things stayed mostly uneventful for the top competitors. Allison sustained mild body damage avoiding an early accident, and had some damage from hitting debris that fell off of Jeff Gordon's car. By lap 210 all 3 drivers had led a lap, securing 5 bonus points, and all were running in the top 5. Mark Martin's and Harry Gant's hopes faded as Martin lost an engine and Gant's handling went south.
With 74 laps to go, the real drama began. Coming out of turn 4, Ernie Irvan blew a tire and careened into the path of Davey Allison. Allison's hopes for the championship were finished and his day ended 43 laps down.
As the race winded down strategy came into play for Kulwicki. The leader of the most laps of a race is awarded 5 bonus points on top of the 5 points they receive for leading a lap. Kulwicki was in the lead and changed pit strategy to ensure he would get those points. After both car pitted, Elliott took the lead and stayed there for the remainder of the race with Kulwicki finishing 2nd. Elliott led 102 laps, Kulwicki led 103. Kulwicki was champion.
Because of his pit strategy, not only did he get the bonus points, but he kept Elliott from receiving them. He won the championship by 10 points, and celebrated with his traditional "Polish Victory Lap"
Sadly, there was not a happy ending for the newly crowned champion. In the next season, returning to Bristol after an appearance at a Knoxville Hooters, his plane went down killing all four passengers. His team was soon sold to Geoff Bodine and never achieved the same level of success.
Bill Elliott raced in NASCAR full time until 2003, with some success, but never challenging for another title. He now is focused on his son, Chase Elliott, who is climbing up the NASCAR ladder.
Sadly, tragedy struck twice in 1993, and Davey Allison was killed in a helicopter crash after testing at Talladega. Prior to that point, his season was relatively quiet with no wins.
After the 1993 finale at Atlanta, race winner, Rusty Wallace and Champion, Dale Earnhardt ran Polish Victory Laps to salute Allison and Kulwicki with flags.