This Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the 15th anniversary of what has to be considered one of the greatest – if not the greatest – race in the history of NASCAR racing.
Atlanta, as it turned out, not only provided the backdrop for one of the best championship battles of the modern era, it also was the venue that would see one Hall of Fame career come to an end while a rookie would begin his career that is now on a collision course with the Hall of Fame.
Davey Allison, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki all entered Atlanta that Sunday afternoon with a chance to win the title, but the three-man battle soon turned into a two-man struggle as Allison got caught up in an accident leaving Elliott and Kulwicki to fight for the title. Elliott was driving for one of the cornerstones of the sport in Junior Johnson, while Kulwicki was manning his own operation on a very limited budget. Elliott went on to win the race, but it was the five bonus points Kulwicki earned for leading the most laps that ended up being the difference in which driver would be crowned the series champion.
The five points gave Kulwicki a 10-point lead at the end of the day and proved to be the difference. If Elliott had captured the bonus for leading the most laps, he would have won the title as he had won more races on the year, which was the tie-breaker for determining the champion.
Sadly, that was the only title Kulwicki would win, as he died the following year in a plane crash on his way to Bristol for the spring race. Allison would never again come that close to winning the title as his life was cut short a few years later in a helicopter crash at Talladega.
While the race will forever be remembered for the championship battle it provided, it will also go down as the race that saw the end of era as Richard Petty climbed into a race car for the last time. It was the final race of the King’s Fan Appreciation Tour that officially brought an end to the driving career of the one person most responsible for taking the sport to the level it had reached.
The King’s final ride and the championship battle were definitely enough to set this race apart, but unknown to everyone in attendance and watching that day, a star was being born when a young 21-year-old rookie by the name of Jeff Gordon took the green flag. As it turned out, Petty had someone to whom to pass his torch that day, and this Sunday when the two of them return to the site of that famous race both will be honored for their part in that historic event.
Gordon will serve as the grand marshal for the Pep Boys Auto 500 and will give the command for the drivers to start their engines. Petty will also be involved in the start of the race as he has been named the race’s honorary starter, waving the green flag to begin the race.
It will be emotional for both drivers as they look back at that day for different reasons. Gordon will not get too caught up in the hoopla surrounding the event as he has to stay focused on protecting his lead in this year’s point chase as he goes for his fifth title. As for Petty, when he waves the flag to start the race, you can’t blame him if his eyes get a little misty behind his ever-present sunglasses. In so many ways he is still the poster boy for the sport and, even though he may deny it, you can’t help but believe he would like to be buckled in one more time and trade a little paint.
Chase notes: Seven of the Chase drivers posted top-10 finishes at the caution-flag waving race at Martinsville. All 12 drivers are still mathematically eligible for the title, but it looks as if it is going to come down to a shootout between Hendrick Motorsports’ Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
Gordon holds on to a 48-point lead over Johnson with Clint Bowyer sitting in third, 110 points back. Some of the best racing in the Chase may be for a top-10 finish as the final four drivers in the top 12 are within 53-points of each other. Ninth place driver Jeff Burton has an 11-point lead over Kurt Busch in 10th, who is being chased by Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Truex trails by 27 points in the 11th position and Kenseth occupies the final spot in the Chase, 42 points from the 10th spot.
Race Preview – Event: Pep Boys Auto 500. Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway (1.5-mile trioval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: Oct. 28, 2 p.m. TV: NBC. Radio: PRN. Defending champion: Tony Stewart.