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As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams get ready to head to Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, it’s time once again for another installment of “Throwback Thursday”. In this week’s edition, we’ll recap one of the closest points battles in NASCAR history that came down to the narrowest of margins in the season finale at Atlanta, the 1992 Hooters 500.
Heading into the final race of the 1992 season, several factors were at play that would shape this race as one that would be remembered for years to come.
First, Richard Petty, the seven-time champion and holder of a record 200 wins in the Cup Series, was preparing to start the final race of his career on that November afternoon. Petty’s career was on its downhill leg, with Petty not having won a race since capturing No. 200 at Daytona in July of 1984. With his career behind the wheel coming to an end, Atlanta would be the final race for “The King” and would wrap up his 1992 Fan Appreciation Tour celebrating his final season in the No. 43 car.
Second, with Richard Petty making his exit from the driving corps, a new driver was making his first start in the Cup Series. Jeff Gordon, sporting a mullet and mustache, climbed behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet for the first time that day, ready to leave his mark on the sport.
Finally, the championship battle was intense all the way to the end, with six drivers still mathematically eligible for the title. The championship contenders included Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, and Harry Gant. Allison and Elliott had been the favorites throughout the season, but struggles by both teams allowed Kulwicki to gain ground heading into the season finale, turning the points race into a battle royale on the high banks of Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Throughout the early portions of the race, both Allison and Kulwicki ran into minor trouble, with Allison suffering some body damage from an early wreck and then running over a roll of duct tape that fell off of Jeff Gordon’s car and Kulwicki having transmission issues. However, both were able to continue on in the race and the championship battle.
On lap 96, the first dramatic incident of the day would occur when Richard Petty, who was just trying to finish the race in one piece and call it a career, got caught up in an accident that caused Petty’s car to rear-end the slowing car of Rich Bickle as other cars were spinning up ahead on the track. The contact with Bickle caused Petty’s car to burst into flames. Petty would be OK after the incident as he was able to get his car to the nearest fire truck for them to put out the fire.
Though the team would get the car repaired for Petty to finish the race, he would be credited with a 35th place finish, 233 laps down.
“Everybody always says they want to go out in a blaze of glory, I just went out in a blaze,” Petty said.
As far as the rookie Gordon, his day would also come to an end early after he spun and struck the wall on lap 164, causing enough damage to send him to the garage and ending his first Cup Series start with a wrecked race car.
Back to the championship battle, all three major contenders had led laps to collect all important bonus points through the first 210 laps of the event.
However, that championship battle would take a major turn with 74 laps to go as Ernie Irvan blew a tire coming off of Turn 4, sending his car directly into the path of Allison’s car. The damage was severe enough to Allison’s car that he was forced to the garage for repairs. The team would get the car back on track for Allison to complete the race, but his championship hopes would be done for.
“I’m not glad it ended this way, but I am kind of glad it’s come to an end. We’ll go get some things sorted out and get ready for next year. It just wasn’t meant to be,” said Allison.
Allison’s crash would leave just Elliott and Kulwicki to battle it out for the title. Both drivers had swapped the lead back and forth for a good portion of the day, with each trying to lead the most laps to score the all important bonus for leading the most laps.
Besides trying to outduel each other for the race lead, the two contenders would still have to make one final pit stop to be able to make it to the finish on fuel. Kulwicki was the first to peel off down pit road and after a 3.4 second stop, the crew was still unsure if they got enough gas to make it to the end of the race, so Kulwicki was forced into fuel conservation mode over the final 18 laps of the race. Elliott came down four laps later and although he was good on fuel, he lost the race lead to Terry Labonte for one lap, which made all the difference in the end on the most laps led bonus points.
Elliott would re-assume the lead and would go on to win the race, but even taking home the checkered flag was not enough for the Georgia native to claim the title. As Kulwicki came across the line in second place, he scored enough points with his race finish along with the bonus points for leading the most laps that he was declared the 1992 Winston Cup champion. A big win for Kulwicki and his underdog team.
As Richard Petty made one final lap to salute the fans, Kulwicki executed his signature celebration, the “Polish Victory Lap” before heading to victory lane to hoist the championship trophy.
“I’ll tell you; this is just the dream of a lifetime. I’ve been the underdog a lot in my career and that’s the way I want people to remember me. Maybe it’ll help some of the people who are dreaming about doing this to believe in themselves and if I can do it, maybe they can too,” said Kulwicki.
While the sport celebrated a new champion on that November day in 1992, triumph would soon turn to tragedy in early 1993.
Kulwicki lost his life in a plane crash while approaching Bristol, Tennessee in April of 1993, leaving the sport stunned in having lost their most recent champion and a shining star. Another championship contender in the 1992 Hooters 500 would also be lost just three months later. Allison was flying his helicopter into Talladega Superspeedway in July 1993 when the helicopter crashed and Alabama’s favorite son was gone in an instant.
For the other major players in that race, Richard Petty was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in its inaugural class and still is a car owner in the Cup Series, fielding cars for Aric Almirola and Brian Scott, Bill Elliott has since retired from driving and was enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014, and Jeff Gordon went on to win four championships, retiring at the end of the 2015 season and moving to the broadcast booth, where he will call this weekend’s race for FOX Sports.

Throwback Thursday - 1992 Championship Battle Comes Down to Atlanta - Motor Racing Digest
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Other than 2011, 1992 is probably my favorite ending to a NASCAR season. It's such a shame that his life was cut short - who knows what more he could've accomplished.
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