In just his third start, back in 2001, Kevin Harvick won here. In celebration, he held up three fingers in honor of the number three. You long time fans know what I’m talking about. For you newer fans, Harvick was doing so in honor of Dale Earnhardt. Harvick’s #29 was originally the “3,” but car owner Richard Childress shelved the number in honor of his fallen friend. In winning, the Cup rookie beat out Earnhardt’s last great rival, Jeff Gordon. (Click here to see the finish)
Speaking of Earnhardt, this place was the site of his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory on April Fool’s Day in 1979. The seven-time champion is the all-time victory leader at this track with nine wins, including number 75 in 2000, edging out the eventual 2000 champion, Bobby Labonte. (click to see video)
In the season finale of 1992, NASCAR’s king made his final start. Richard Petty called it a day for the final time. As one champion was heading home, another was just getting started. Ready or not, a kid from Indiana, by way of California made his NASCAR Winston Cup debut. Jeff Gordon’s career started here in a fashion as inauspicious as the final bow for Petty.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is not often the place you here fans talk about as a personal favorite. More often, you hear about Daytona, Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville or Talladega. On the other hand, the Hampton, Georgia track is home to NASCAR history.
Perhaps the greatest moment of all came in that 1992 battle for the championship. It was a wide open race for the Cup, with as many as five drivers fighting it out within 100 points of each other at season’s end.
Daytona 500 winner Davey Allison took the early season lead, but 1988 champion Bill Elliott- NASCAR’s most popular driver of the era- offered up a fierce challenge by sweeping the month of March at Rockingham, Richmond, Atlanta and Darlington. Between Allison, Elliott, Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin- a Ford won the first nine races of the season!
Elliott would eventually seize the lead, Kulwicki, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant were all on hand- along with Allison- to keep the pressure on the Awesome Bill. Gant won at Michigan the same week that Allison’s brother died in a Busch Series practice at that track. To show that some things never change, Gant got his win on fuel mileage.
Ricky Rudd was also in the mix, to an extent. In Rudd’s win at Dover, Kulwicki crashed out, and he said the mishap likely finished him off for a shot at what he called “the championship deal.” The championship landscape took a sudden turn, when Elliott’s dya ended early at Charlotte. By now, six drivers were within 114 points of each other.
Back in those days, the NASCAR Cup schedule ran 29 races, with the season’s final race scheduled for Atlanta on November 15th. Allison re-captured the lead after taking the checkered flag at Phoenix, with a week off following. Kulwicki was 30 points back of the leader, Elliott trailed by 40.
In a day when southerners still ruled the sport, Alan Kulwicki- a native of Wisconsin- looked a little out of place. In a sports popularized by farmers an old moonshine runners, Kulwicki had a college degree in mechanical engineering. In the heart of the Bible Belt and that old-time hellfire and damnation religion, Kulwicki was a devout Roman Catholic. While many drivers preferred the “checkers or wreckers” approach to driving, Kulwicki was very measured and methodical.
At the Hooter’s 500, the race quickly became a two-car battle for the championship. Davey Allison crashed early in the race in a collision fueled by a tire blow out on the car of Ernie Irvan, opening the door for an epic tussle between Elliott and Kulwicki. Kulwicki has problems now of his own, as first gear broke in his car’s transmission during the race’s first pit stop. Kulwicki left pit road in fourth.
The professorial Kulwicki figured in his head throughout the race just how many laps he’d need to lead to win the title as the race progressed. Before this race, Kuelwicki got permission from NASCAR and Ford to take the “T” in Thunderbird off his car’s bumper, so it could say “Underbird,” as Kulwicki said he felt like the underdog, racing against the brash young Allison and the prodigious former champion Elliott.
Kulwicki needed to conserve fuel, and was running on old tires at the end. Sure enough, Elliott won the day’s battle, but Kulwicki won the war- finishing second, but leading the most laps to eke out a 10-point victory over Elliott for the championship. (click to see end of race).Allison finished the season in third- 63 point off Kulwicki’s pace. Harry Gant placed fourth, Kyle Petty took fifth on the year.
As the story goes, it was Kulwicki’s one and only title. By the middle of the following summer, both Kulwicki and Allison were gone. The defending champion died in a plane crash on April Fool’s Day of 1993, Allison perished in a helicopter crash at Talladega. In honor of the rivals- the 1993 champion, Dale Earnhardt, and the winner of the season ending race, Rusty Wallace, performed a side-by-side “Polish Victory Lap” (a backwards lap that was a Kulwicki trademark) in honor of Kulwicki and Allison.
Indeed, if this track could talk it could tell many more tales of Yarborough, Petty, Bobby Allison and Freddy Lorenzen. As Atlanta Motor Speedway celebrates 50 years of NASCAR racing, let there be no doubt it will forever be remembered as the site of NASCAR’s most magical moments.