NASCAR experienced maybe the most “perfect storm” they ever had in their history. Sure, many point to the 1979 Daytona 500 as the day that transformed NASCAR from a regional to national sport and moved into a new era but November 15, 1992 was a date that moved NASCAR into the next era.
So many things happened on November 15, 1992, exactly 25 years ago. In the 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon competed in his first career race, Richard Petty competed in his final career race and a NASCAR high six drivers had a mathematical chance to win the 1992 Winston Cup championship.
In any year, just one of those storylines would make for a era defining moment but we had them all on the same day. I was 5 when this race took place and this is one of the first NASCAR races I specifically remember watching. I never got to see Richard Petty or David Pearson or Cale Yarborough or Bobby Allison or Darrell Waltrip or Bill Elliott dominate when they were at their peak but I knew it was important to see the best on top of the best compete one last time.
On top of that, six drivers had a mathematical chance to win the championship. Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin had a shot but more realistically, it was down to three drivers for the title. Point leader and Daytona 500 winner that season Davey Allison, owner/driver Alan Kulwicki and former champ Bill Elliott. Allison had a 30 point lead over Kulwicki and a 40 point lead over Elliott but at that time, that was only the difference of about five positions so any of the three could win.
This was pre-Chase, pre-Playoffs, pre-any of that which guarantees drama at the end of the season. What we got in 1992, during a time where a driver could clinch the championship multiple races in advance and have absolutely no drama leading into the final race, had six drivers with a shot at the title. It was something we had never seen before.
The race itself started with an emotional tribute to Richard Petty. One of the, maybe the greatest driver in NASCAR history, was ending his career which started in 1958. The 54-year-old who amassed 200 wins was getting out of the race car and solely running his team while the fans enjoyed one more year with The King driving.
Petty’s career wouldn’t have a happy ending. He got caught up in a crash in the first half of the race and his car went out in a blaze of glory. While the car was in the garage for most of the race, the crew got it fixed up just enough for Petty to take it out for the final laps and end his career not giving up and on the track.
This race was also important because while Petty was competing in his final race, Jeff Gordon would compete in his first race. The 20-year-old wasn’t that impressive that day, crashing out and finishing 31st, but it was the start of one of the biggest NASCAR careers ever.
In addition to all that, there was a championship to be won. Davey Allison led the points and he really just needed a top five to clinch the championship. That was easier said than done, but Allison was right there near the top of the pack.
That was, until Allison got caught up in a crash with less than 100 laps to go. Ernie Irvan spun and collected Allison and just like that, Allison was done. In 1992, Allison suffered broken ribs, a concussion, broken arm and broken blood vessels in his eyes in various crashes throughout the season. Allison even mourned the loss of his brother Clifford in a practice crash that year. Throughout all that, Allison didn’t miss a race and kept the lead in the title race until that crash.
At the time, throughout all he had been through, it was heartbreaking to see Davey get caught up in a crash that wasn’t his fault. It’s even more heartbreaking today to hear him talk about losing out on a championship and talking about trying next season, knowing what would happen to him eight months later.
With Allison out, it came down to a battle between Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki. With just 10 points separating the two, just two positions was potentially the difference between who won the Winston Cup Championship. Every other driver stepped aside for those two to fight it out for the win and the title.
In the end, it was pit strategy that determined who won the championship. Kulwicki was leading and he was racking up the laps led. Back then, you received five bonus points for leading a lap and five bonus points if you led the most laps. With a 10 point margin, leading the most laps could be the difference. Kulwicki stretched out his fuel to as far as he could and pit on lap 310 of the 328 lap race.
Kulwicki was willing to finish 2nd and essentially conceded the race to Elliott by staying out as long as he could and get the five points for leading the most laps. In the end, Kulwicki led 103 laps and Elliott led 102 laps. That one lap was the difference. Elliott won the race in his native Georgia but he lost the championship to Kulwicki by that one lap. If Elliott had led the most laps, it would’ve resulted in a 10 point swing and Elliott lost the championship by exactly 10 points. And in a tie, Elliott would have won the championship due to having more wins than Kulwicki that season.
Many people didn’t give Alan Kulwicki much of a chance. The Wisconsin short track racer never competed for a top series championship before and didn’t really have the best equipment either. A college graduate in mechanical engineering, Kulwicki used his education and worked on his own car. Where the top racers raced for other owners, Kulwicki ran his own team. A throwback to the early days of NASCAR, the owner/driver Kulwicki relied on himself and a handful of team members and embraced the underdog role to defeat the top teams in NASCAR.
The celebrations were sadly short lived. Within the next eight months, both Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison were killed in separate aviation crashes. Kulwicki was killed on April 1, 1993 in an airplane crash with some Hooters executives. Allison was killed on July 13, 1993 as a helicopter he was piloting crashed at Talladega Superspeedway.
Whether you look at it as the happiness of the race or the tragic end, the Hooters 500 25 years ago began an era change in NASCAR. The likes of Richard Petty were retired and a new generation like Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bobby Labonte entered the fray. The old guard of Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip, who were big in the 80s, became the established veterans. And in the case of Earnhardt and Labonte, still won a championship. But it was the generation of Gordon who dominated.
The NASCAR era that started 25 years ago was the NASCAR I grew up on. I grew up seeing the rainbow car of Jeff Gordon tear up the track every week. I grew up seeing stock cars finally race at Indianapolis. I grew up seeing the sport grow to become a national and international sport where the drivers started to come from all parts of the country and went from being “good ol’ boys” to superstars.
And when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth retire this weekend, I’m sure people will see the future generation of drivers like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon now and picture a similar era defining moment we saw 25 years ago.