If it wasn't the single most significant day in the long history of NASCAR, then it's on a very short list. That afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway 20 seasons ago -- it won't be 20 years until November -- continues to stand out as an unparalleled confluence of the sport's past, present and future, as perfect a storm as the series has ever seen. Richard Petty's final race. Jeff Gordon's first race. The closest championship battle ever, at least to that point. Never have so many eyes been focused on a track for so many reasons, all of them special in their own individual way.
It is not one of those occasions made more glorious by the benefit of hindsight. Even at the time, it was a very big deal. Petty's impending retirement was marked with a huge bash the night before the race at the Georgia Dome, celebrating the finish line to a 35-year career that had netted 200 victories and seven championships. Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison and Bill Elliott were involved in the tightest championship battle of the pre-Chase era -- one that pitted an undermanned independent against more traditional powers. And Hendrick Motorsports was rolling out its newest driver, always a notable occasion, even if at the time Gordon was more known for wrecking cars.
Everyone knows what happened. Petty, whose car suffered damage early in the race, said goodbye in an emotional sendoff. Gordon hit the wall and finished 31st, as Rick Hendrick showed more of the patience that would help transform his young driver into a multiple-time champion. And Kulwicki, the stubborn Wisconsin native who was intent on doing things his way -- even if that meant having only 16 employees, and embracing the underdog role to such an extent he painted over the first two letters on his Thunderbird race car -- claimed NASCAR's most unlikely championship by 10 points. The King, the kid and the Underbird shared the spotlight on a day so overloaded with subplots, which it's difficult to imagine so many stars ever again aligning in quite the same way.
But what if they did? It's interesting to consider, at least, the ingredients that would need to be on hand for a similar occasion to one day arise -- the retirement of a legend, the presence of a close championship battle, and the debut of a newcomer with the potential for greatness. Certainly, that 1992 finale will always stand on its own given the involvement of Petty, Gordon, and Kulwicki, men who between them share 12 championships at NASCAR's highest level. The day sticks in the memory not just because of what happened at the time, but what would happen soon afterward: aircraft accidents the next season that would claim Kulwicki and Allison, and leave that Atlanta race tinged with melancholy.
So, no, there will never be another Atlanta 1992. But it's surely within the realm of possibility to think that at some point, events might line up to produce something close. Certainly, there are great drivers who will one day step out of their cars for good. Certainly, there are future stars that will one day slide behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for the first time. Certainly, there have been riveting championship battles in recent NASCAR history -- just look at last year, when Tony Stewart beat Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker -- that lead you to believe such things are very possible again. Now there's just the small matter of getting them all to happen at the same time.
Easier said than done in today's NASCAR, where rather than officially retire, older drivers seem to hang on, getting a ride here or there, and fading out a little at a time rather than all at once. No question, there are drivers who went out similar to how Petty did -- Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace spring immediately to mind -- but then you have guys like Elliott and Terry Labonte, who are sort of retired but also liable to show up in a car at Richmond next week. So you'd need a driver who's done enough that he'd merit a grand farewell, and has enough other things going on his life that when he steps away from the car, he does it for good. It's hard to believe that would be the case for Stewart, who seems like he'll still be gripping a steering wheel at 80. Which leaves us with one very logical candidate -- the same driver who helped spur all this when he made his debut two decades ago at Atlanta.
To be clear, nobody is pushing Gordon into retirement. The four-time champion is great for the sport, and it will be a sad day indeed when he climbs out of that No. 24 car for the last time. But at 41, he knows the time is coming, even if he doesn't know when. "I can't say there's necessarily a target date," Gordon, who has an ownership share in and lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, said recently. Plus, he's still competitive.
"Right now, at this time, we're running good," he added. "Last year was a great year for us, even though we came up short in the Chase. [We] won three races. My kids are getting older. Those are the factors that have always played into my excitement, enthusiasm and passion for being out there on the race track, because that is a lot of it. If we're performing well, if we're getting results, and I'm healthy, then I want to keep doing it.
"Now that my kids are getting older and understanding a little bit more, it only drives me to want to do it longer and to do it better. ... Listen, I know it's in the future. I have to be smart and at least think enough about it to plan for it if it happens. You hope that it happens on your own terms."
Between his extensive charitable side-work, his love of travel, his young family and his likelihood of becoming a Hendrick executive after his driving days are done, it's difficult to envision Gordon hanging on just because he wants to race. The man has too many other things happening, too much else to do. When he goes out, that will be it. And when he does, it will surely be an event at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- or wherever the finale is that season -- to rival the festivities surrounding the King's farewell in 1992.
Of course, there's no way of knowing if Gordon's final race will coincide with the debut of the next Gordon, whoever that might be. First, much like retirement, breaking into the sport's top level has become a much more gradual process, one based on the realities of sponsorship and ride availability as much as anything else. In today's NASCAR, the idea that a young driver will make one Sprint Cup start -- in the final race of the year, no less -- preceding a full-time campaign the following season seems farfetched at best. He (or she) is more likely to make a couple of starts one year, and maybe a limited number the next before a permanent effort kicks off. So maybe the next Gordon won't necessarily be making his (or her) debut on the day the real one retires, but rather just making that final tune-up before venturing full-time into the sport's major league.
The top contender for that position? It all depends on the timing. Gordon clearly still has gas in the tank, which leads you to believe the current crop of top NASCAR up-and-comers -- a rather impressive group that includes the likes of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne, Austin Dillon, James Buescher and Nelson Piquet Jr. -- will have had its collective shot at the Sprint Cup level before Gordon steps out for good. If Gordon competes until, say, age 45 (an arbitrary age for the purposes of this scenario), you'd need a younger driver to fill the role he played 20 years ago. That could mean prospects like Chase Elliott, now 17, or Kyle Larson, 20, both currently in the K&N Pro Series.
Or Ryan Blaney, an 18-year-old who's already getting his shot at the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series levels.
"If you were really trying to nail it, and if it were a year earlier that would be OK, I'd pick Blaney," said David Smith, editor in chief of MotorsportsAnalystics.com, which among other things ranks top Cup prospects. "Looking at his production in the Nationwide Series now, what it's taken other Nationwide drivers three or four years to do, he's done it in six races. ... From the perspective of getting the right guy, somebody who might be making a debut like that, it might be him."
Earlier this year, Blaney joined Penske Racing, which has a young flagship driver in Brad Keselowski, is eyeing another young driver in Joey Logano, and may be in no hurry to rush Dave Blaney's son to the Cup level. So, perhaps that means Ryan Blaney follows the model set by the likes of Stenhouse and Dillon, and takes his time working his way up. Maybe that means in four years he's making a Cup start at Homestead in preparation for his rookie campaign the next season, and in the drivers' meeting he receives a money clip from Gordon embossed with his starting position -- just as Petty distributed to his fellow competitors, the new kid in the No. 24 car among them, before his final race all those seasons ago.
Admittedly, it's all a reach. If anything, this exercise emphasizes the spectacular timing of those events 20 years ago, which all occurred independently of one another, yet combined to produce such a memorable day. And even if Gordon does race for the last time on the day someone like Blaney begins his Cup career, there's still the matter of the championship race, which is a beast of its own making and can't be swayed by just one person. Even so, Edwards looks at what happened two decades ago, and looks at what happened in the last race of last season, and sees a connection.
"I think the sport somehow lends itself to creating those moments," he said. And, indeed, sometimes so many moving parts fall in synchronicity with one another, even if just by accident. So maybe the possibility does exist for the past, present and future to align so perfectly once again. Maybe there is another day similar to that afternoon in Atlanta just waiting to happen. Maybe the events will create such an impression that people will still talk about them 20 years later, just as they do about the King, the kid and the Underbird.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jeff Gordon
- Alan Kulwicki
- Atlanta Motor Speedway