Before catching fire in the Chase for the Championship, there had to be a spark for Tony Stewart's charge to winning the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. For Stewart and his No. 14 team, that jolt came on Labor Day Weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Heading into September, Stewart's season resembled anything but the look of championship form. He had just one top five finish since the third race of the season at Las Vegas and had yet to win a race. Stewart was also mired back in the points standings in 10th place, meaning a bad race in Atlanta could contribute to him not qualifying for the Chase at all.
But something happened in Atlanta in the AdvoCare 500. Stewart ran near the front most of the race, finishing third behind an epic duel between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. That seemed to be just the jolt Stewart and his team needed. Five Chase victories later, Stewart was the 2011 Sprint Cup champion, winning in one of the most exciting title chases in NASCAR history.
Stewart's title ended one of the most exciting races in the sport's history, but it may not have even happened if not for Labor Day Weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
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."
Danica Patrick is making a move forward in her racing career in 2012, with plans to enter at least eight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events. And of those events, one will be at Atlanta Motor Speedway, making the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR night race weekend even more of a marquee event on the 2012 schedule.
She is also slated to run the entire NASCAR Nationwide Series season for JR Motorsports, meaning fans at AMS on Labor Day Weekend will have the chance to see Patrick race two times during the same weekend.
Atlanta will be the fourth scheduled event on Patrick's Cup slate. She'll drive a No. 10 Chevrolet fielded by Stewart-Hass Racing. The Daytona 500, Darlington and the August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway will precede the AdvoCare 500 on Patrick's schedule.
"Our goal with Danica's schedule is to try and maximize her 10 races with us so that she's as prepared as she can possibly be for a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in 2013," said Tony Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Hass Racing. "In the GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, she'll handle short tracks, intermediate 1.5-mile ovals, and some unique tracks like Darlington and Phoenix. The point is to expose her to as many challenges as possible so that she'll know what to expect in 2013."
Patrick, however, won't be the first female to compete in NASCAR's top division at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Shawna Robinson raced at AMS in March 2002, starting 31st and finished 34th. Janet Guthrie, regarded in some circles as the most successful female to have raced in NASCAR, competed at Atlanta three times, her best showing being a finish of tenth in the spring of 1978 after qualifying 23rd.
Earlier this week marked the 100th anniversary of Chevrolet, the Official Vehicle of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Throughout its history, Chevrolet has enjoyed many of its greatest moments here at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With 37 Sprint Cup Series victories at Atlanta, the Chevy nameplate has made its way to Victory Lane more times at AMS than any other manufacturer. Rex White won here in October of 1962, wheeling a Chevy to Victory Lane. The first win by a Chevy at AMS proved to be the start of a half-decade of dominance at one of the favorite tracks of numerous fans and drivers.
Throughout the history of Atlanta Motor Speedway, which spans more than half a century, Chevrolet has won three races in a row on six different occasions while in three instances, Chevy has won four consecutive races at Atlanta.
Not only has Chevy won numerous times at AMS, but some of its most memorable victories have occurred here as well.
Two of the closest finishes in NASCAR history, in the 2000 and 2001 spring events at Atlanta, featured Chevy claiming the win with Dale Earnhardt edging Bobby Labonte is 2000 and Kevin Harvick holding off Jeff Gordon in 2001.
Championship moments? Chevy’s had plenty of those here as well. During the 1990s, Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte each celebrated season championships at Atlanta.
And recently, this past Labor Day Weekend to be exact, Jeff Gordon held off teammate Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling late-race duel to win the AdvoCare 500 for what was his 85th career victory.
Happy Birthday, Chevy!