As Atlanta Motor Speedway celebrates it's 50th Anniversary season, many moments from the track's past have come to define the Speedway as one of the most storied in NASCAR's history.
Two such Atlanta Motor Speedway moments include Harvick's healing win in Dale Earnhardt's former ride and the most-famous race in NASCAR history, the 1992 Hooters 500.
No. 2: Harvick Claims Photo Finish Win in Healing Moment for NASCAR
Kevin Harvick was thrust into the national spotlight when he won the 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Not only was his win – a thrilling, photo finish victory in which Harvick edged Jeff Gordon to the line by 0.006 seconds – the fifth-closest finish in NASCAR history, but the victory was a healing moment for many NASCAR fans.
Just weeks earlier, the NASCAR nation lost a hero when Dale Earnhardt died unexpectedly in a final lap crash in the Daytona 500. Harvick, competing for Richard Childress Racing in the then Busch Series (now Nationwide), was quickly tapped to replace Earnhardt in what was the No. 3 car, rebranded as the No. 29.
Harvick posted strong showings in his first two races before coming to Atlanta. But it was Atlanta – where Earnhardt had won nine times, the most of any NASCAR driver – where the Goodwrench Chevrolet returned to Victory Lane.
Harvick had been a contender all day, but led just 12 laps earlier in the race before reclaiming the lead on lap 320. With a multi-time NASCAR champion in Gordon closing on Earnhardt's former ride, Harvick held the high line – the same position Earnhardt used to win a photo finish in Atlantaone year earlier – entering the final sweeping turns. With Gordon and Harvick side-by-side in the race's final moments, the high line again proved victorious as Harvick edged Gordon to the line by little more than inches.
The moment was emotional for fans and NASCAR teams. After his victory, Harvick performed a tire-smoking burnout on the frontstretch with three fingers held high out of his window before driving down pit lane and high fiving crew members from nearly every team on his way to Victory Lane.
"All I can say is this one's for Dale," Harvick said from Victory Lane. "I don't know how you could script it any different. I think somebody was watching over us."
Harvick later expanded on that thought: "The spotter was telling me the 24's coming. And he had a good car – probably the best car – [but] somebody was making me go a lot better than I was."
Harvick's crew chief that day, Kevin Hamlin, spoke directly to the therapeutic aspect of the win: "This will make it a lot better for everybody, I guess, to heal a little."
Looking back on the win, Harvick still finds the moment emotional.
"I think for us, to get that first win, it's obviously something that you can't do twice," said Harvick. "To win your first race is something that's pretty cool. To do it in our third start, with everything that was going on, you can really look back on it now and reflect on those types of things. At that moment, I don't remember a whole lot from that particular day. There's just so many emotions that were running through your mind - good emotions, bad emotions, everything that was happening. It was a little bit confusing, to be honest with you."
No. 1: The Greatest Race in NASCAR History: the 1992 Hooters 500
NASCAR fans flocked to Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 to witness a race likely to be remembered in history books. What they witnessed that day – the 1992 Hooters 500 – is regarded by many fans as, "The Greatest Race in NASCAR History."
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 around the track had been sold, including those in the new East Turn grandstand. Temporary bleachers were erected. Those seats were sold.
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 race 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."
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."
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."