Race of ages: Jeff Gordon's first, Richard Petty's last and a championship on the line to boot


Richard Petty walked through the Atlanta garage with his usual armada of fans trailing behind. It was race day, and like 1,173 race days before it, The King would soon strap himself in behind the wheel of his Petty Blue No. 43. Today, though, was different. Today, he knew, would be the last time he'd ever drive in NASCAR's Winston (now Sprint) Cup series, and he wanted to mark the occasion.

The day had already set up as a momentous one. Celebrities like Burt Reynolds roamed the grounds, the air thick with the kind of it's-almost-here anticipation that characterizes every NASCAR race, but especially this one. November 15, 1992, marked the final day of the season, and six drivers still had at least a mathematical chance at that year's championship. Petty was not one of them; he knew his days of winning were long, long behind him.

On this day, Petty's last as part of the drivers' fraternity, he walked from driver to driver bearing gifts: money clips, each engraved with the driver's name and starting position in that day's race, the 1992 Hooters 500. Forty-two money clips for 42 other drivers.

Of the men who received money clips that day, four were Cup champions. Three more would eventually join them. The field also included three other future inductees into the theretofore nonexistent NASCAR Hall of Fame, with several other drivers likely to make it when their day comes. One of those likely future Hall of Famers was a 21-year-old named Jeff Gordon, who was driving in his very first Cup race. And within a year, two of the 42 would be dead.

The smart money at the Hooters 500 was riding on Davey Allison. The newest member of the legendary Alabama Gang, the mob that gave Petty hell throughout the '70s and '80s, Allison was, at 32 years old, finally coming into his own. With the backing of the powerful Yates Racing team and under the guidance of crew chief Larry McReynolds, Allison had won the '92 Daytona 500. He'd survived terrifying wrecks at the All-Star Race and at Pocono, and entered the season finale as the point leader, needing only a fifth-place-finish to win the Winston Cup.

"Allison and the Robert Yates team, when they were on their setup, were entirely capable of dominating," says's Ed Hinton, who covered the race for Sports Illustrated. "I thought Davey was going to win the championship. Maybe I was just pulling for the best story, but I felt like he was due."

Thirty points behind Allison sat Alan Kulwicki, who even in 1992 was a throwback to an earlier era: the owner-driver, the guy who managed every aspect of his car before, during and after the race. Kulwicki drove during the so-called "tire wars" waged between Goodyear and Hoosier in the early '90s. He was such a multitasker that during a race he'd order his crew to buy tires from other race teams because he didn't like how his were holding up.

"Davey came from a tried and true racing family. He instantly got uplifted by the fans of the Alabama Gang," explains NASCAR president Mike Helton. "Alan fought his way into the NASCAR scene, and did it more scientifically than he did from his heritage. He redefined that [way into the sport], in his way, how you break into NASCAR. They serve as bookends to the chemistry that makes NASCAR."

To recap the central characters, there's The King, Richard Petty, a kid named Gordon, the underdog Kulwicki and a budding superstar named Allison – that's Davey, not Bobby.

And there's one more character in this story, Bill Elliott, the man who carried the melodious nickname, "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville." Elliott hailed from the same region of  Georgia where, in the early decades of the 20th century, bootlegging drivers formed the foundation of what would become NASCAR. The 1988 champion and genuine good guy, he'd engendered himself enough to become one of the sport's most popular drivers of all-time, behind only Petty. But even on this day most of his best days were behind him. Yet he stood just 40 points back of Allison.

"The thing about Elliott, he was just a little bit over the hill," Hinton recalls. "Junior Johnson as a team owner was just a bit over the hill. Neither was what they'd been in the 80s."

Yet there he was, duking it out with Kulwicki and Allison, making it a three-way-battle for the title entering that '92 finale.

On any other day this would have been the dominant story, but this wasn't any other day. This was the final act of an icon, an American institution. This was Richard Petty's last race.

Petty had 200 victories in NASCAR's top series, a record that likely will stand forever, but it was time to go. He hadn't won in more than eight years.

"I put him in the category of old football coaches who stay too long," Hinton says. "Bear Bryant. Bobby Bowden. We don't talk about him anymore, but Joe Paterno. Guys that should have retired before they did."

In those days, NASCAR teams would often give their lower-series drivers a late-season start in the big leagues, not unlike a young baseball player getting a September call up. Despite a mustache that looked like a caterpillar had burned up and died on his upper lip, Jeff Gordon was already a midget-car legend, and he'd been the 1991 rookie of the year in the triple-A Busch (now Nationwide) Series. Though he'd driven Fords in Nationwide, this race would mark his debut in a Chevrolet – the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports.

"I pretty much felt out of place and not real comfortable,” Gordon recalled Saturday. "I was looking around, looking at these great drivers and celebrities, wondering what I was doing there."

Fledgling team owner Rick Hendrick knew he had something decent in this Gordon kid. He just hoped he'd tabbed the right Gordon.

"It was hard to take him seriously with that mustache he looked like he'd drawn on with an eyebrow pencil," Hinton recalls. "We knew the kid was good. But of the two Gordons, Robby was the one we expected to explode wherever he went. One of the reasons Jeff left Ford and signed with Hendrick was because Robby Gordon was earmarked for Ford."

Other than all that, there wasn't much going on in this race.

A track-record 160,000 fans arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway that Sunday, and almost none of them gave the guy driving the Hooters car [Kulwicki] a ghost of a chance.

Kulwicki knew he drove in the shadow of Allison and Elliott, and he was just fine with that. He embraced the role of underdog – or "underbird," the name he made for himself by slapping two Mighty Mouse stickers on the "TH" of his Ford before the race.

"When you looked at the order between Yates and Davey Allison, Junior Johnson and Bill Elliott, Kulwicki was not the odd man out, but the most unique situation in the championship hunt," Helton said. "It was like David and Goliath, even in 1992."

Allison had already won five races that year and placed in the top 5 in more than half of the season's 28 races. He was the face of a Yates team that was absolutely coming into its prime – a team that most racing observers expected to dominate the championship picture for the rest of the 90s.

But expectations often run hard into reality, and sometimes that reality comes in the most mundane of packages. Jeff Gordon's crew was as young and untested as Gordon himself, and during one pit stop, someone left a roll of duct tape on his hood. The tape fell off, bounced along the track and ended up getting hit by none other than Allison. The favorite had already gotten rear-ended on Lap 2, and his day was steadily getting worse.

Meanwhile, Petty was in a world of trouble. He'd run straight into a wreck that had collected Darrell Waltrip, Dick Trickle and Ken Schrader, and his car was on fire. He slid into the infield in flames, and fans waited anxiously for him to clamber out of the wreckage.

"You could hear him on the radio," Hinton recalls. "He was rather agitated. 'Get the [freaking] fire trucks!]' For a few seconds there, that fire was bad enough that you think he could be in real trouble."

"I always said I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory," Petty would say later on many occasions. "That wasn't quite what I meant."

Petty's crew hammered away at the wreckage, finally getting The King back out on the track for one final run.

Gordon didn't fare much better. His car, slipping toward the outside wall all afternoon (or "loose"), finally skidded into the wall, ending his day in 31st.

Still there was the sideshow – Allison, Elliott and Kulwicki racing for the championship.

Allison was having trouble as a result of the collision with Gordon's duct tape, but not so much that he couldn't hold onto his points lead. Elliott and Kulwicki were charging, though. Elliott had led 42 laps, and when Allison slammed straight into a spinning Ernie Irvan, it appeared the championship was Elliott's to lose. Surely he and his team, led by a NASCAR legend in Junior Johnson, would be able to outrun and outthink a one-horse operation like Kulwicki's, right? Right?

Kulwicki took the lead on Lap 210 and wouldn't surrender it for more than 100 laps. As the laps wound down, he and Elliott played a high-stakes game of poker, each trying to bluff the other into making a mistake. And then came the final round of pit stops, the most critical moment of the season.

Kulwicki had intended to pit on Lap 306, but, running numbers in his head, stayed out until Lap 309. He knew that the driver who led the most laps got a five-point bonus, one he desperately needed. The decision to stay out gave him 103 laps led on the afternoon; a quick gas-and-go and he was gone. Seven laps later, Elliott took the lead with only 12 laps remaining. Kulwicki slotted in behind him but made no attempt to pass for the lead. Why not? What was he thinking?

At that point, Elliott had led 90 laps on the day. But as the laps wound down, realization dawned: There was no way he could capture the laps-led bonus. Elliott would win the race, but Kulwicki had clinched the championship by leading that one more lap. The five-point bonus had clinched it for Kulwicki.

"Rarely did Junior get out-calculated," Hinton says. "He was absolutely furious when he realized what had happened."

With the laps-led bonus, Kulwicki would win by just 10 points over Elliott. It was the closest finish in NASCAR history, and would remain so until 2011, when Carl Edwards would tie Tony Stewart in the points race and Stewart would win in a tiebreaker. Had Elliott snagged those bonus points, he would have tied Kulwicki and won on a tiebreaker; he had five wins in 1992 to Kulwicki's two.

"When the race was over, they said, 'You ain't gonna believe this [stuff]," Michael Waltrip, who finished 14th on the day, explained laughing. "Kulwicki led one more lap and he won!"

It was one of the great championship races in NASCAR history. And though no one knew it at the time, it was the end of more than one era in the sport.

The 1992 race marked the first and last time anyone would take Jeff Gordon for granted. Before the next year's Daytona 500, he'd stun the NASCAR nation by winning a qualifying heat.

Dale Earnhardt, when asked to sum up the competition for that year's race, offhandedly mentioned "that Gordon boy," as if he couldn't remember the kid's name. Two years after that Hooters 500, Gordon would win the first of his four NASCAR championships.

Bill Elliott continues to drive to this day in a part-time capacity, most recently at July's Daytona race. He would win several more races, but never again finish a season higher than eighth. His son Chase, born three years and two weeks after the Hooters 500, is working his way up through NASCAR's lower series.

Between his boots and trademark cowboy hat, Richard Petty remains one of the most recognizable Americans in history. He's suffered numerous financial difficulties in trying to keep his own racing team in operation, but has an outside chance of making this year's Chase on the back of driver Marcos Ambrose.

On Thursday, April 1, 1993, Kulwicki flew to the Bristol race after an appearance at a Knoxville Hooters. His plane crashed on its approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Tennessee, killing Kulwicki. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the pilot for failing to properly clear ice from the plane's engine. The next day, Kulwicki's hauler exited Bristol, driving a single, solemn lap around the track..

"I'll never forget from my father and all of the guys who would sit around and watch these races on Sundays how much respect everyone had for Alan Kulwicki," says Carl Edwards, who was 13 years old at the time of the race. "Being an engineer that ran everything, that drove the race car and made the decisions and paid the bills, and the success that he had … everyone I was around respected his achievements and his accomplishments as much as anyone I've ever seen."

After Kulwicki died, Allison said he believed his problems in the Hooters 500 were part of a larger design, one to get Kulwicki a championship before his death. "Now I understand why I didn't win a championship," Davey told Fr. Dale Grubba, a family friend. "I'll get mine. I'm glad he got his."

But he never would. Three months later, on July 12, 1993, Allison was attempting to land his newly-acquired helicopter in the Talladega infield when he wrecked. The head injuries he suffered in the crash proved fatal.

"We lost a couple of great race car drivers and fun guys – guys the fans enjoyed," Waltrip says. "Their passion for racing is what the sport is all about. You just push forward. It's sad, but it's true. You give it your all and you hope for the best."

"What you don't know when you lose somebody like that is the butterfly effect," Helton said. "I know Davey would have been a contender, and I think Alan would have been, too. Davey would have been competing for championships, and Alan would have been redefining the sport."

The easy hook on the 1992 Hooters 500 is the crossover of old and new – that direct link (Petty and Gordon) that extends from 1958 to this weekend.

"I still have my money clip," Gordon says. "I remember coming home from that race and saying, 'I'm going to hold onto that.' And I have."

We can't yet know which future race will play the role of a crossroads. There may be a young driver now running in one of NASCAR's lower series who will be the legend of the 2020s, or a kid in go-karts who will dominate the 2030s. Maybe one of them will make his first start in Jeff Gordon's or Jimmie Johnson's or Tony Stewart's last race. That's how NASCAR rolls onward.

But there's a larger story from the 1992 Hooters 500, a story of promise and possibility and tragedy. Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki stood at opposite ends of the NASCAR spectrum – the sparkling, personable son of a legend versus the calculating, analytical racing genius. What kinds of races would those two have run had they lived? How many championships would they have won? We can't ever know. The true story of 1992 is the look at what NASCAR could have been … and ended up being.

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