From the watershed championship race of 1992 to Kevin Harvick’s victory three weeks after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., Atlanta Motor Speedway is uniquely positioned in the lore of NASCAR Cup Series racing.
The 1992 season finale, held Nov. 15 on a track that measured 1.522 miles, is arguably the most significant race in NASCAR’s modern history and a milestone of enormous importance as NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary.
The Hooters 500 was the final race for “The King,” Richard Petty, who was ending a 35-year career that had seen him set unassailable records of 200 Cup victories, 27 wins in a single season and a streak of 10 consecutive victories.
It was the first race for an upstart driver named Jeff Gordon, a 20-year-old California native who would go on to challenge Earnhardt for supremacy in NASCAR’s premier division.
It was the race that would decide the 1992 series championship. Thanks to his victory a week earlier at Phoenix, Davey Allison led the series standings by 30 points over privateer Alan Kulwicki and 40 over Bill Elliott under the scoring system developed by NASCAR historian Bob Latford.
Harry Gant, Kyle Petty (Richard Petty’s son) and Mark Martin also were mathematically eligible for the championship but would need a miraculous set of circumstances to win it.
Richard Petty was out of provisional starting spots when he came to Atlanta for the final race of his Fan Appreciation Tour. Crew chief Dale Inman, after being robbed at gunpoint in the Atlanta airport parking lot the night before, gave Petty a car fast enough to qualify 36th in Friday’s opening round.
Petty chose to stand on his time and forego second-round qualifying on Saturday. He ended up 39th, safely in the field.
In front of a record crowd of 160,000 fans, Kyle Petty (sitting in his car) and his sisters (standing beside it) gave the command “Daddy, start your engine.”
As he had done for the previous 28 races in 1992, Petty paced the field on the opening parade lap, then dropped back to the starting position he had earned.
A fifth-place finish, without leading a lap, would have given Allison the championship, but calamity struck on Lap 254. Running sixth, Allison was unable to avoid the spinning car of Ernie Irvan and sustained damage so serious that his car had to go to the garage for repairs.
That left Kulwicki and Elliott to fight for the championship. Thanks to an astute pit call by crew chief Paul Andrews, Kulwicki secured the title by leading 103 laps to Elliott’s 102 (earning the 10-point bonus for leading the most laps) and finishing second to Elliott in the race.
Richard Petty was collected in a Lap 95 crash and finished 35th in his final race. Gordon crashed out after 164 laps and finished 31st in his Cup debut.
Fast forward more than eight years to Mar. 11, 2001, three weeks after Earnhardt had perished in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s death thrust Harvick into the spotlight as the Cup Series driver for Richard Childress Racing, who had fielded cars for six of Earnhardt’s record-tying seven championships.
In his Cup debut at Rockingham on Feb. 26, Harvick finished 14th. He improved to eighth the following week at Las Vegas.
And in his first Cup race at Atlanta, Harvick held off Gordon by .006 seconds on a breathtaking final lap to win for the first time. Over the years, Harvick has come to appreciate the significance of that victory.
“I look back on it, and you watch the video, and you listen to the crowd, and I can put a lot more of it into perspective now just because of the fact that I have a better understanding of the magnitude of the situation and really everything that came with that particular year,” said Harvick, who will retire after the 2023 season to pursue a career in broadcasting.
“But that particular weekend in itself was kind of a blur for me, because we were still at the point of not really understanding how to digest everything that was happening, not know where everything was going, not expecting to be driving the car…
“You weren’t prepared to do anything to deal with the magnitude of the situation, so the few things that I remember from that day are just it’s still the loudest crowd that I’ve ever been a part of, and to hear the crowd screaming over the running car after the race and seeing the people hanging on the fence down the back straightaway with a couple laps to go.”