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Atlanta No Stranger To Intense Title Chases

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This weekend, the fate of determining the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will come down to the wire, with Carl Edwards leading Tony Stewart by a razor-thin margin. Here at Atlanta Motor Speedway, we're no strangers to intense, neck-and-neck fights for a season championship, as many titles have been decided here, and the most famous of those came in 1992 at the Hooters 500, an event still regarded by many as the “Greatest Race in NASCAR History."

Here's a look back at a day of which was unforgettable for the drivers, thousands in attendance and millions watching around the world. 

 

For months fans had been lining up to buy seats for Hooters 500, the final race in the storied 35-year career of the sport's all-time King, seven-time champion Richard Petty.

By mid-summer, every seat was sold, including those in the new East Turn grandstand, creating demand for temporary seats, which sold out quickly as well.

Then along came a barn-burner points contest. Under NASCAR's former season-long points formula, the outcome of the championship was much in doubt when the circuit arrived at AMS for the final race of the season. Davey Allison led the pack and needed to finish sixth or better to claim his first crown. Maverick driver/owner Alan Kulwicki was in second place, 30 points back. Hometown favorite Bill Elliott, who had won at Atlanta in the spring in the midst of a four-race win streak, had stumbled down the stretch and was third in the standings, 40 points behind Allison. Harry Gant was 97 back, one point ahead of Kyle Petty. Mark Martin, in sixth, was 113 back and still mathematically in the running.

In addition to the points race and Petty's last ride, the race also featured veteran Rick Mast claiming his first career pole and a rookie, Jeff Gordon, making his first Cup start. But both drivers' time in the limelight was short: Mast and Brett Bodine crashed on lap two, while Gordon wrecked out after 164 laps.

With a packed facility featuring a crowd estimated at nearly 150,000, the racing action seemingly surpassed the pre-event hype.

Kyle Petty and Mark Martin fell out with engine woes, and points leader Davey Allison was involved in a crash with Ernie Irvan on Lap 254, taking him out of title contention.

That left Kulwicki and Elliott to battle for the race win and the championship in what turned out to be an epic battle yet to be equaled in the NASCAR world.

In the closing laps, Kulwicki and his Paul Andrews-led crew began plotting a strategy to win the title.

Kulwicki, even with his main focus on driving the car, was a major player in the discussions.

"He could floor me with his capability of driving the car and thinking about strategy," said Tom Roberts, former Atlanta Motor Speedway PR director.

Kulwicki and his crew figured they'd need to take the bonus points for leading the most laps so they stayed on the track, even as Elliott was closing on them, until Lap 310, giving them 103 laps led. When Kulwicki stopped, the crew added fuel only and pushed him out of his stall. Because he'd lost a gear in his transmission on an earlier stop, he was slow getting back up to speed and Elliott won the race, leading a total of 102 laps, with Kulwicki second. But Kulwicki won the championship by 10 points, because he got the five extra points for leading the most laps. Had those points gone to Elliott, the two would have tied and Elliott would have gotten the title because he led the tie-breaker category, five wins to two.

But all that was news to Elliott until after the race was over.

"I never even thought about it until after the race," he said. "I won the race and lost the championship."

Looking back at the event, Elliott most remembers his respect for Kulwicki, the last owner/driver champion in NASCAR history, who died in a plane crash the next year.

"He was different, a hard guy to get to know," Elliott said. "He kept to himself. He was driven and very intense in what he did.

"He did a good job [winning the championship]. It would be virtually impossible to do it in today's world."

Michael Waltrip, owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, was in the field for the 1992 Hooters 500 and looks back on the race's storylines in admiration.

"It was incredible the way the championship played out," said Waltrip, who drove the No. 30 Pennzoil car in the 1992 Hooters 500 and finished 14th. "It was just an amazing race and the footnotes were equally incredible to have Richard Petty starting his last race and Jeff Gordon starting his first race – that's pretty hard to script and have all that come together at one. I never will forget Richard fixing his car, pulling it out and running the last few laps and waving at the crowd with his car all torn all to pieces. It was a really great day for NASCAR.

"I didn't know that anybody really, honestly could have realized the historical significance at the time," added Waltrip.

The race also marked the first event at Atlanta Motor Speedway for current president Ed Clark.

"If you ask anyone who was a fan in 1992, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway has a special place in their memory," said Clark, with the checkered flag from the race signed by Petty and framed behind his desk. "To have that many story lines and in-race drama, it was a once in a lifetime event and we were lucky enough to host it in Atlanta."

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