Late-Race Drama Adds Spice to Storybook Season Finish
Bill Elliott reached a goal in the Hooters 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race, but it was Alan Kulwicki who fulfilled a lifelong dream.
Elliott, driver of the Junior Johnson & Associates Ford, rebounded from some recent hard-luck performances to win the race – and thus record his fifth Winston Cup victory of the season – by 8.06 seconds over Kulwicki.
But Kulwicki, whose Winston Cup career began with a pickup truck, some equipment and very little money in 1986, parlayed his runnerup finish into the first national championship of his career. The native of Greenfield Wis., became the 10th different titlist since the drivers began pursuing the “Winston Cup” in 1971.
And he won the closest title battle since the current system was installed in 1975. Kulwicki finished with 4,078 points, only 10 more than Elliott (4,068). The winning point total was the lowest since Rusty Wallace became champion in 1989 with 4,176 points.
For Kulwicki, the race marked the first time he had taken the points lead all season. It came at the most rewarding moment.
Both drivers’ achievements were made in the final race of Richard Petty’s career. “The King” of stock car racing brought to a close 35 years of competition with a 35th-place showing in his Petty Enterprises Pontiac. Petty completed 94 laps before being involved in a multicar crash which engulfed his car in flames and sent him reeling out of the race.
“I went out in a blaze of glory but it want what I had in mind,” said an uninjured Petty, who waved to the relieved cheering crown after he exited his battered car. “Make that just a blaze. There wasn’t any glory.”
The car was repaired well enough for Petty to rejoin the race for one lap – 327 – of the 328-lap affair around the 1.522-mile track. After the race, he and wife Lynda were taken around the track in a pace truck for one final farewell.
Kulwicki, 37, had his own post-race parade. He made what he calls his “Polish Victory Lap,” circling the track in the wrong direction, after the checkered flag assured him the title was his. The last time Kulwicki made the lap came with his first career win at Phoenix International Raceway in 1988.
For four other challengers for the Winston Cup title, the day ended in disappointment.
Davey Allison, who came into the race as the points leader by a margin of 30 over Kulwicki and 40 over Elliott, saw his title hopes disappear with a race-ending crash with Ernie Irvan on the frontstretch on lap 253. He fell to a 27th-place finish and wound up third in the final tally with 4,015 points.
Harry Gant came into the race in fourth place in points and finished there, 123 points in arrears. He would up 13th in the race.
Kyle Petty’s wounded Pontiac completed 320 laps and finished 16th, allowing Richard’s son to wind up fifth in points with 3,945.
Engine failure in his Ford relegated Mark Martin, the sixth man in contention, to 32nd place. He finished sixth in points, 191 behind Kulwicki.
But certainly the contenders put on the show. Four of them led for a combined 257 of the 328 total laps.
In the end, laps lead played a significant role in the championship outcome. It was Elliott, in his first year with Johnson’s organization, who dominated early. By the time Kulwicki powered past him on lap 210, he had led 85 circuits to just two for his rival.
It meant Elliott had a firm grip on five extra bonus points awarded for most laps led. When Kulwicki took the lead for only the third time in the race he had to pile up laps if he wanted to eradicate Elliott’s edge.
He did so, leading 101 consecutive circuits. When he mad his last pit stop on lap 310 for a splash of fuel, he knew he had offset Elliott’s only advantage and had the title won. Kulwicki lead 103 laps; Elliott 102.
The race itself was another matter. Inheriting the lead after Kulwicki’s pit stop, Elliott made his own fuel-only stop on lap 314. He came out with the lead still his and that would not change.
“I did everything I could do,” said Elliott. “I tried to lead the most laps; everything. I knew if Alan finished just one position behind me, he’d win the championship.
“They tried to tell me over the radio to lead every lap but that wasn’t easy. With 30-35 laps on my tires, I thought my car ran better. Alan seemed to be quicker the first 30 laps or so. The distance he’d put on me made it hard for me to catch him.
“When he pitted for gas at the end, I knew we were going to do the same thing. We had discussed under the last caution making a stop for gas only because we thought that would make the difference. Where we pitted (well toward the exit of pit road) made a difference. When he pitted, he had to run slow down pit road and then he’d have to go out slow.
“We could come in slow but then just go after the stop. We would keep him back a couple of seconds – and that ‘s what we did,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s victory gave him a sweep of events at AMS, since he won the spring Motorcraft 500. It marked the second time in his career he won both races at his “hometown” track, as he did it first in 1985.
“No doubt to win here in front of the hometown fans is special,” said Elliott, who earned $93,600. “And it was different because we didn’t back into it like we did here the last time. Our car ran good all day.
“It hurts a little bit to lose the championship but it’s no more bittersweet because of everything that happened. We ran good, we ran hard. We came here to win the last race of the year as well as a championship.
“If we didn’t win the championship, we did the race and because it was Richard Petty’s last race, there’s a lot of emotion involved. When they ask who won his last race, I can say, ‘It’s me.’”
The race was only two laps old when a spectacular accident crippled the efforts of first-time pole winner Rick Mast and sidelined No. 2 starter Brett Bodine. A crash between the two in the second turn instigated a seven-car mishap that battered Mast’s Oldsmobile, put Bodine’s Ford out of the race and sidelined Hut Stricklin’s Ford as well.
Other cars involved were those of Michael Waltrip, Rich Bickle, Wally Dallenback Jr. and Jimmy Spencer.
Thereafter, Dale Earnhardt assumed control. He took the lead on the second lap and led all but 15 of the first 60 circuits. But he ultimately lost two laps when he ran out of gas on lap 61. He never made up the distance and was really relegated to 26th place after he spun in the second turn on lap 203.
When Earnhardt ran out of gas, the lead turned over to Elliott for the first time. He, Kulwicki, Martin, Allison, Irvan and Geoff Bodine took turns at the point – with Elliott dominate – through lap 209. It was at that point when Kulwicki took over and exercised the control which would lead him to the championship.
“Winning the race maybe isn’t as good as winning the championship, but with what this team has gone through this year, we’ve accomplished a lot,” said Elliott, who won four straight races in March and whose last win came March 29 in Darlington, S.C.
“When I look back on the season, we ran well all year and maybe there were a couple of races we should have won but didn’t for one reason or another,” said Elliott, the 1988 Winston Cup Champion. “But we had sort of an up-and-down year. It was a long year.”
Typical of some of the “downs” encountered by Elliott and his team was the engine failure at Phoenix on Nov. 5 that plopped him from first to third in the point standings with the loss of 110 points.
“We knew what we had to do coming in and we gave it our best shot,” said Elliott, who has now won 39 times in his career. “To win here, to win five races and to finish second in the points in my first year with Junior Johnson – that’s a lot
“But I’m tired. It’s been a long year and I’m ready to get out of here.”
Geoff Bodine finished third in the Bud Moore Engineering Ford while Spencer rallied to finish fourth in the Bobby Allison Motorsports Ford. Terry Labonte took fifth in the Hagan Racing Chevrolet while Rusty Wallace took sixth in the Penske Racing South Pontiac.
Rounding out the top 10 were Sterling Marlin, seventh in the Junior Johnson & Associates Ford, Jimmy Hensley, eighth in the Cale Yarborough Motorsports Ford, Ted Musgrave, ninth in the RaDiUs Motorsports Ford and Dale Jarrett, 10th in the Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet.
“I congratulate Alan,” said Elliott. “He did what he had to do. And he came out on top. But we won this race and I can’t say enough about what all has been accomplished this year.
“To go out winners mean a whole lot.”By Steve Waid, Executive Editor Winston Cup Scene – Vol. XVI No. 29 November 26, 1992