This weekend, as the Atlanta Motor Speedway helps to shape the playoff picture for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it also celebrates the signature event in the track's 52-year history and one of the all-time greatest races in all of motorsports. It saw a legendary title battle, the final ride for stock car racing's King, and the first race for NASCAR's next iconic champion.
As November 15, 1992 approached on the calendar, the season-ending Hooters 500 was already being touted as one of the greatest races in NASCAR history.
Six drivers, three of them within 40 points of one another at the top, were in position to battle for the Winston Cup crown. To compete for 28 races in the pre-Chase era of NASCAR's premier division and to have as many drivers gunning for the title at the final event was unheard of.
Davey Allison, having won that 28th race at Phoenix two weeks prior, held a 30-point edge on Alan Kulwicki. Dawsonville's Bill Elliott sat third, ten markers further back. Harry Gant, the 52-year-old ageless wonder, was 97 points behind Allison, with Kyle Petty a single point behind Gant in fifth. At 113 points out of first, Mark Martin maintained a mathematical shot at jumping from sixth to first and claiming his first Winston Cup title.
Though Allison had never won at Atlanta and had ridden as extreme a professional and personal roller coaster during that '92 campaign as any driver in recent memory, he still remained the favorite for the championship. Hoisting the Cup at the end of the race would have meant overcoming no fewer than four awful accidents during the season. More importantly, it would have come at the conclusion of a year that had seen Allison lose his beloved grandfather in April and his younger brother Clifford in a practice crash for a Busch Series race at Michigan in August.
Elliott, a favorite son of Georgia, certainly had home-track advantage as he headed to AMS. Not only was he a four-time victor at the Speedway, but he had also claimed the Motorcraft 500 in March. That win was more through pure racing luck than a dominant race car, however, as Elliott languished just inside the top-10 for much of the day. He had not yet made his last pit stop when Mike Wallace wrecked Dick Moroso's Oldsmobile with 44 laps remaining, drawing a caution flag that trapped the contending drivers - including Allison, who had pitted from the lead - a lap down. Those drivers made up their lap when Elliott pitted under the caution, but they were helplessly trapped at the tail end of the lead lap - that is, they restarted ahead of Elliott, effectively 1.522 miles behind the race leader. The caution flag that would have brought them to his bumper never came, and Elliott claimed his third of four consecutive checkered flags he took in the season's opening month. He hadn't won a single race since, however.
Standing between the duo was Kulwicki, a headstrong independent who lived and raced by the "my way or the highway" creed that simultaneously frustrated peers and even his own crew members while endearing him to race fans as "the little racer who could." Going up against Allison, who drove for engine-building wizard Robert Yates, and Elliott - who piloted the legendary Junior Johnson's No. 11 machine - made the Wisconsinite the clear underdog in the title fight. Or, rather, the Underbird, as his team had rebranded the No. 7 T-Bird with Ford's approval. Replacing the "TH" on the car's nameplate was a sticker of Mighty Mouse, one of Kulwicki's nicknames.
Along with the title fight, the other major story entering the Hooters 500 was the retirement of NASCAR's undisputed King, Richard Petty. Though his 200 wins and seven championships - both records - were well in his rear view mirror, Petty remained an icon of the sport and as beloved as he had ever been. His final season - dubbed the "Fan Appreciation Tour" rather than a farewell (as The King put it, he wasn't really going anywhere, he was just no longer going to be the driver) - had allowed him to thank the fans across the country who had supported his 35-year career. As the Tour reached its final destination at AMS, everyone hoped Petty had one last moment in the sun remaining.
Though few paid little mind to such a milestone in '92, with the title fight and The King's final start snaring the headlines, the Hooters 500 also marked the first start for Rick Hendrick's new No. 24 DuPont-sponsored team and young sprint car standout-turned-stock car hotshot Jeff Gordon.
In qualifying, popular Rick Mast won his first-ever pole in Winston Cup competition, turning a lap of 180.183 MPH. That was significant, as it marked the first 180+ MPH average speed on an intermediate track in the sport's history. Unfortunately, Mast's day would last all of one lap, as he and outside polesitter Brett Bodine tangled in turn one while dueling for the lead, wiping out Hut Stricklin in the process.
Petty, meanwhile, made it only 94 circuits before his race - and his career - appeared to have come to a premature end. A major crash broke out on the frontstretch, involving Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Dick Trickle, Wally Dallenbach, and Rich Bickle. Petty hit the back of Bickle's car, puncturing the oil cooler and setting the iconic No. 43 ablaze. Petty scrambled from the car, unhurt, but the car had suffered extensive damage.
As the race played out, Elliott and Kulwicki ran near the front while Allison held steady near sixth, where he needed to finish to clinch the title. Unfortunately, with just 75 laps remaining in the 'season, Ernie Irvan suffered a flat tire exiting the fourth turn. As he fought to control his car, he spun up the track and collected Allison, sending both skidding into the wall. Allison waved to the crowd as he climbed from the car, then graciously accepted his defeat in an interview following the race while declaring that perhaps 1993 would be his year.
With Allison out of the picture, the race turned into a battle of strategy as the final pit stop of the day approached. Kulwicki's crew chief Paul Andrews calculated the exact lap that the No. 7 team could clinch the five extra bonus points for leading the most laps, even if Elliott led the remainder of the race. After 101 consecutive laps out front - and 103 total - Kulwicki pitted, handing the lead over to Elliott, who led 17 of the remaining 18 laps and pulled away to win the race. Kulwicki held on to finish second, but his total laps led added up to one more than those led by Elliott.
Because Kulwicki, rather than Elliott, led the most laps, the pair tied with 180 points apiece. Had Elliott led the most, he would have wound up with 185 points to Kulwicki's 175, a ten-point swing that would have left the pair tied. Elliott's five wins on the season would have given him the championship in the tiebreaker, with Kulwicki having only won twice during the year. Instead, they scored the same number of points, the ten-point margin between them held, and Kulwicki was the 1992 Winston Cup champion.
It was after the race, however, with Kulwicki and Elliott celebrating their respective triumphs, that the defining moment of the day occurred. Petty, having pulled his wrecked car back onto the track with two laps remaining in order to finish his last race, circled the track slowly, waving at the fans as they saluted The King one last time.
In the two decades since that incredible race, the legend of the Hooters 500 has grown through both triumph and tragedy. Kulwicki perished in a plane crash on April 1, 1993, while Allison died on July 13 of injuries sustained in a helicopter crash the day before. Meanwhile, Gordon - after finishing 31st following an accident in his debut - has gone on to win 86 races and four championships, cementing himself as one of NASCAR racing's iconic competitors.
This weekend, Atlanta is celebrating the great race by having The King's car - in the same condition as it was when he made his final laps in competition - on display throughout the weekend. Fans can see the battered Pontiac in the Fan Zone at the display of Goody's, one of Petty's longtime sponsors and one he endorses to this day.