Monday, November 15, 2010

November 15, 1992: Shifting gears

HAMPTON, Ga. - There were subplots galore as the 1992 NASCAR season wrapped up. Going into the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, six drivers had a mathematical chance of winning the Winston Cup. The increased number of contenders gave the last race of the season much more importance than normal.

Even without the tightened title chase, the race was going to have added importance as the last race in the great career of Richard Petty. Petty, NASCAR's all-time wins leader by a long shot, announced in 1991 that he would race one more season. Breaking from the traditional retirement path of past stars, who often rode in a reduced schedule in their final few seasons, Petty announced he would race a full schedule in 1992, in essence giving him a season-long farewell tour.

Petty almost made his last race an anticlimactic affair, qualifying only 39th out of 41 cars and barely making the field. Then, Petty was caught up in a crash during the 95th lap. His car on fire, he was able to steer it to the infield and escape to safety. His crew spent the rest of the race trying to piece the car back together, and they succeeded, with Petty going back out for the final two laps to ensure he wouldn't end his racing career with his car sitting in the garage.

While the race was the last in Petty's career, it was the first race in the career of Jeff Gordon. Though it wasn't seen this way at the time, Gordon's subsequent success in NASCAR has led to this race being seen as a sort of passing of the torch in NASCAR. It was the only time that Petty and Gordon, two of the most successful and popular drivers in NASCAR history, ever raced against each other.

Meanwhile, the championship chase itself came down to strategic decisions by the drivers. Crashes and car trouble eliminated all but two of the championship contenders; Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki were neck-and-neck in the overall standings and in the race itself.

During his first pit stop, Kulwicki lost first gear in his car, giving him a distinct disadvantage any time he was entering or exiting the pit stops. Still, he remained near the front of the pack. With about 20 laps to go, the cars started leaving for their final pit stops, but Kulwicki stayed on the track. He knew that with how close the championship chase was, the winner could come down to which driver led the most laps in the last race. Kulwicki added two more laps to his total before coming in for a pit, then did a gas-and-go stop, rather than changing tires. He sacrificed race performance doing this, but he reduced the risk of stalling out in the pit area so close to the finish.

The strategy worked. While Kulwicki was passed and ended up finishing the race in second, he the most laps with 103, which was one more than Elliott, who won the race. By leading one more lap than Elliott, Kulwicki got 10 bonus points in the standings rather than five, which was just enough points to give him the championship. If he had pitted two laps earlier as advised by his pit crew, Kulwicki would have finished second in the standings.

The close finish, both on the track and in the standings, combined with the passing of the torch from Richard Petty to Jeff Gordon, have made the 1992 Hooters 500 one of the most memorable races in NASCAR history.

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