Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of nine current intermediate tracks to hold NASCAR races; the others are Charlotte, Chicagoland, Darlington, Homestead, Kansas, Kentucky, Las Vegas, and Texas. However, at the time, only Charlotte and Darlington were built.
The layout at Atlanta Motor Speedway at the time was a four-turn traditional oval track that is 1.54 miles (2.48 km) long. The track's turns are banked at twenty-four degrees, while the front stretch, the location of the finish line, and the back stretch are banked at five.
This race, and its subsequent championship outcome, took place in the era before the introduction of NASCAR's "Chase". In 1992, the Winston Cup Championship (now known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Championship) utilized the 1975 points system, which awarded equal points for all events, and collectively included all 29 events, without exceptions, automatic advancements, or "postseason" formatting/seeding. The existence of six drivers mathematically eligible for the title going into the final race of the 1992 season was a series record at the time, and an unusually high number that deep into the season. Most years saw at best only two to three drivers with a chance at the title, while in some years, the title had been clinched prior to the final race of the season, leaving the finale as anti-climactic.
Coming into the race, six drivers had a mathematical chance to win the title, the most ever. The points standings were led by Davey Allison, driving the #28 Ford for Robert Yates Racing, who had experienced a roller-coaster season. Allison had won the season opening Daytona 500, and four other races. However, his season was nearly halted on more than one occasion, after bad wrecks at The Winston in May and at Pocono in June. In August, he mourned the death of his brother Clifford, who was killed practicing for the Busch Series race at Michigan. Allison rebounded, and won the second to last race of the season at Phoenix. Allison was attempting to become the second second-generation driver to win the Winston Cup Championship - his father Bobby won the title in 1983. At the time, Lee and Richard Petty were the only father-son duo to have won the championship.
Bill Elliott, driving for Junior Johnson as mentioned above, experienced a much more consistent season in 1992, winning four races up to that point, and earning 16 top-10 finishes. Elliott led by as many as 154 points in the season championship on September 20, but he began to falter, and had three bad races in a row, dropping his lead to 39 with three races left. At the second to last race of the season at Phoenix, Elliott's car suffered a cracked cylinder head and overheating problems, which relegated him to a 31st-place finish, and dropped him from first to third in the standings going into the final race.
Owner/driver Alan Kulwicki (AK Racing) was considered the third and final primary contender, and the underdog to win the championship. While he had only won two races in 1992 up to that point, he had 11 top-5s and 16 top-10s. He was running at the finish at all but two races so far. Despite a crash at Dover in September, he rebounded to post finishes of 12th or better in the five races leading up to Atlanta. Kulwicki received approval from NASCAR and Ford to change the "Thunderbird" lettering on his bumper by putting two Mighty Mouse patches on the "TH" in "THUNDERBIRD" because he felt like the underdog for winning the championship, and Kulwicki admired the character, which symbolized him and his team (many of whom later became champions themselves long after his death).
Allison would mathematically clinch the championship if he finished sixth or better, regardless of the other five drivers' performances. Numerous other championship scenarios generally favored Allison, provided he finished ahead of his competitors, and led a lap during the race. Allison led second-place Alan Kulwicki by 30 points and Bill Elliott by 40.
After Kulwicki, three other drivers had an outside chance to win the championship. Harry Gant, driving the #33 Oldsmobile for Leo Jackson Motorsports, entered the race 97 points behind Allison, and had won two races during the season. Kyle Petty, driving the #42 Pontiac for Team SABCO, was one point behind Gant, having also won twice. Kyle Petty's opportunities were particularly noteworthy. He would be the first third-generation Winston Cup Champion (behind grandfather Lee and father Richard), and he would also have the chance to win the title on the same day his father Richard was retiring. The last driver with a chance was Mark Martin, in the #6 Ford for Roush Racing, who was 113 points behind Allison. Attention during the day focused on Gant, Petty, and Martin, but all three basically needed to win the race, and hope for the other championship contenders to drop out. Martin's attempt, in particular, would have been the most difficult to pull off.
Of the six championship contenders, the only one that was a former Winston Cup champion was Elliott, who was the 1988 series champion. The closest former champion to Elliott in points was eighth place Darrell Waltrip, who was not mathematically able to win the title.
Championship standings entering the 1992 Hooters 500
- Davey Allison, 3928 points
- Alan Kulwicki, −30
- Bill Elliott, −40
- Harry Gant, −97
- Kyle Petty, −98
- Mark Martin, −113
- Ricky Rudd, −281
- Darrell Waltrip, −363
- Terry Labonte, −414
- Ernie Irvan, −429
Bold indicates drivers mathematically eligible for the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup championship
Since this was the last event of the season, it also marked the final stop on Richard Petty's "Fan Appreciation Tour." On October 1, 1991, Petty announced he would retire at the end of the 1992 season. He planned on running the entire season, not just selected events, and to that point, had managed to qualify for all 28 of the events in 1992. Media coverage of Petty's final race was extensive, and the weeks leading up to the race saw considerable pre-race hype and anticipation. Ticket sales were brisk, and a record sell-out crowd was expected at Atlanta to see "King Richard" in his final event.
Under the spotlight of attention during the 1992 season, Petty's on-track results had been so far unimpressive. He had scored zero top tens, and had a best finish of 15th (three times). His most notable race of the season came at Daytona during the July 4 Pepsi 400. With President George H. W. Bush in attendance, Petty was honored during the pre-race ceremonies. He qualified on the outside of the front row, and led the first five laps of the race.
At Atlanta, facing the intense pressure of a hectic schedule of appearances and honors, not to mention the actual on-track activities, Petty barely managed to qualify for the Hooters 500. He posted the 39th-fastest speed out of 41 cars. He would not have been eligible for the provisional starting position, and had to qualify on speed. Petty stood on his first round time, and sweated out second round qualifying, and was not bumped from the lineup. With Petty safely in the field, the stage was set for a huge sendoff. Ceremonies to honor Petty were planned in the pre-race and post-race, and Petty was expected to take a ceremonial final lap around the track after the race to formally conclude his career. On the night before the race, Alabama held a concert honoring Petty at the Georgia Dome, with 45,000 in attendance.
On the night before pole qualifying, Richard Petty's cousin and longtime crew chief and team manager Dale Inman was robbed at gunpoint in the parking lot of the Atlanta airport. The robber tried to grab a necklace from Inman's neck, but failed. He pointed his gun and pulled the trigger, but it did not fire, and no one was injured.
The first round of qualifying was held on Friday November 13. Rick Mast won his first career pole position in the No. 1 car. His qualifying speed of 180.183 miles per hour (289.976 km/h) was the first-ever NASCAR qualifying speed over 180 mph at an intermediate length circuit. Previously that speed had only been achieved at Daytona and Talladega. It would be the final NASCAR pole for Oldsmobile.
Under the rules at the time, the first round of qualifying locked in only the top twenty cars. In first round qualifying, all of the six championship contenders except for Harry Gant qualified. Mark Martin (4th) was the highest of the six contenders. Richard Petty was not among the top twenty. A field of 40 cars (plus at least one provisional) was expected to comprise the starting grid. With Petty sitting 36th-fastest after Friday's first round, he was precariously close to being bumped from the field on Saturday.Source: The (Lexington, NC) Dispatch, Saturday, November 14, 1992, p. 2B.
Second round qualifying was held on Saturday November 14. Under the rules at the time, drivers who did not qualify during the first round moved on to second round qualifying. Each driver could elect to stand on his time from the first round, or erase their time and make a new attempt. Rookie Jeff Gordon bettered his time from the day before, and became the fastest qualifier of the second round. That entered him into the wild card drawing for the 1993 Busch Clash.
Most drivers stood on their times, including Richard Petty, who held on to qualify 39th. Jimmy Hensley elected to try again, and wound up losing eleven spots on the grid. Stanley Smith, who did not even make top 40 on Friday, made a big improvement, qualifying 33rd. Likewise, Jimmy Horton went from only 47th-fastest on Friday, to qualify 36th.
A record 160,000 fans arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway to witness Petty's final ride, and to watch the exciting championship battle. At the start, polesitter, Rick Mast and Brett Bodine battled into turn 1, with Bodine leading the first lap. On lap 2, the two cars tangled, and crashed in turn 1. Dale Earnhardt, who was running third, slipped by, and took over the lead. Several other cars were collected in the crash, and five of the championship contenders got through unscathed. Davey Allison, however, slowed to avoid the crash, and was tagged from behind in the left rear by Hut Stricklin. The left rear fender was badly bent, but did not puncture the tire. Allison stayed out on the track, and the crew would be able to bend the bodywork away from the tire on the next pit stop.
During the caution, Mark Martin ducked into the pits to change all four tires, because he was afraid he ran over debris from the incident, as well as flat-spotting the tires when he locked up the brakes and slid sideways to avoid it.
Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan traded the lead for the first 60 laps. Championship contenders Bill Elliott, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki ran near the top 10, while Kyle Petty, Harry Gant, and Mark Martin were deeper in the field. Richard Petty worked up to 30th.
As of about lap 30, Allison was holding on to a 20-point lead in the standings over Elliott and Kulwicki. By lap 60, Elliott had worked up to 5th place, the highest running of the championship contenders. During the first sequence of pit stops a yellow came out, and trapped several cars (including leader Dale Earnhardt) a lap down. Alan Kulwicki's car had trouble pulling from the pit area, and lost first gear. Bill Elliott was the first driver off of pit road, and took over the lead. The pit stop shuffle saw Kulwicki up to second, with Mark Martin in 4th, and Harry Gant up to 5th.
At lap 90, another series of yellow flag pit stops had shuffled the field, bringing Davey Allison to the lead. Mark Martin took the lead on lap 91, with Harry Gant third. Elliott and Kulwicki were in the top ten, with Kyle Petty at the tail end of the lead lap.
On lap 95, Ken Schrader and Dick Trickle tangled on the frontstretch. The cars spun wildly to the inside, Darrell Waltrip spun to avoid the crash, and ran into Wally Dallenbach, Jr.. Rich Bickle was also collected. Richard Petty ran into the back of Bickle, and destroyed the front end of the car, breaking the oil cooler. The oil started a fire, and Petty's car coasted to the infield in flames. Petty (who was overheard on ESPN's in-car camera shouting to the rescue crews "BRING THE FUCKING FIRE EXTINGUISHER!") was uninjured, however the car was badly damaged, and his return to the race was in question.
At the 100 lap mark, Allison continued to hold the hypothetical lead in the points standings, with Kulwicki second, and Elliott close behind in third. Five of the six championship contenders were running 1st–5th.
The second half settled down to the top three championship contenders: Allison, Elliott, and Kulwicki. Around lap 118, rookie Jeff Gordon made a pit stop. The Ray Evernham-led "Rainbow Warriors" crew were still unrefined, and made many mistakes. Evernham himself referred to them as the bumbling "Keystone Kops." The crew accidentally left a roll of duct tape on the hood, and it fell off out on the track. Davey Allison, running second, hit the debris and suffered a damaged front air dam. He lost several positions and the handling of the car was affected.
Mark Martin dropped out on lap 160 with a blown engine. After a strong first half, Harry Gant slid down the standings, and fell out of contention.
Rookie Jeff Gordon's debut ended on lap 164. Battling a loose race car all day, he hit the wall and was unable to continue. Gordon's 31st-place finish was largely overlooked in light of the day, and it marked the only time Gordon ever drove with Richard Petty in a NASCAR race.
Bill Elliott shuffled to the front, and led for 42 laps. The hypothetical points race tightened, as Davey Allison (running 7th) held a mere 11-point lead over Elliott and Kulwicki, who were tied for second.
On lap 210, Alan Kulwicki took the lead, a lead he would hold for 101 laps. Bill Elliott was second, with Davey Allison in 6th.
With 74 laps to go, Ernie Irvan blew a tire in turn four, and spun into the path of Davey Allison. Allison t-boned Irvan's spinning car, and the cars slid to a stop along the inside wall. Allison re-fired the car, but was unable to pull away. The car had a broken right front tie rod, and he lost all steering. He would lose 43 laps as the crew repaired the damage, ending his championship hopes.
With Allison and Martin out of the race, and Gant and Kyle Petty running outside the top ten, the championship battle came down to Alan Kulwicki and Bill Elliott.
The green came out on lap 259, with 69 laps to go. Alan Kulwicki was known for being an intelligent driver who thought outside the box, and worked with crew chief Paul Andrews to plot their strategy late in the race. The team considered a quick "gas-and-go" stop, which would see Kulwicki forgo a tire change and simply take enough fuel to fill the tank, during the caution on lap 258. However, they determined that doing so would not allow them to make it to the finish without yet another stop. They decided it was a better idea to stay out and instead try to lead more laps. By staying out front in clean air, they might avoid being caught up in a crash like Allison had just suffered.
Elliott closely battled Kulwicki, trying to take the lead, but Kulwicki held off the challenge. Elliott backed off, and at lap 300, Kulwicki held about a two-second lead. Kulwicki's team planned to take their last pit stop, again intending just to take fuel, on lap 306. With Elliott narrowing the margin, however, Kulwicki's crew moved the pit stop up to lap 309 as he was nearing the point where he could clinch an additional five points for having led the most laps in the race. Kulwicki finally stopped on lap 310, boosting his laps led total to 103. By opting for a "gas and go" stop, Kulwicki was able to save time and have his crew ready to push the car in case it stalled, since he was forced to start the car in second gear.
Elliott pitted on lap 314. He had a quicker pit stop since he still had use of first gear. He came out ahead of Kulwicki on the track. Terry Labonte led lap 315, then he pitted. Elliott assumed the lead on lap 316, and led the final 13 laps. Elliott's laps led total came to 102 – one lap fewer than Kulwicki's 103. With Elliott leading, Kulwicki tucked into a comfortable second, conserved fuel, and did not mount a challenge for the lead. Elliott went on to win the race, and Kulwicki finished second. By leading one more lap than Elliott, Kulwicki claimed the 5 bonus points for leading the most laps. Kulwicki became the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion by only 10 points over Elliott, the closest margin in NASCAR history until the 2011 season when Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards finished in a tie for first place, with the championship going to Stewart due to him winning 5 races to Edwards' 1.
Richard Petty's crew worked diligently all afternoon to get the his car running again, and with two laps remaining, Petty pulled out of the pits. His car had no sheet metal on the front end and no hood. He finished 35th, and was credited as running at the finish in his final race. Commenting on the fire, Petty said, "I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory; I just forgot about the glory part." After the victory lane celebration, Petty climbed in the car for one final ceremonial lap to salute the fans. He waved out the window while the song "Richard Petty Fans" by Alabama was played on the public address system.
Immediately after taking the checkered flag, Alan Kulwicki drove back around to the frontstretch. He proceeded to stop at the flagstand and turn around, to drive what he referred to as a "Polish victory lap", clockwise (backwards) around the track, waving to fans. It mimicked a similar celebration he did at his first victory in 1988 at Phoenix.Time of race – 3:44:20
Average speed – 133.322 mph
Margin of victory – 8.06 seconds
Lead changes – 20 amongst 9 drivers
Total purse: US$785,787 (winner's share $93,600)
Busch Pole Award: Rick Mast
Busch Beer Fastest Second round Qualifier: Jeff Gordon
Gillette Halfway Challenge: Ernie Irvan
Goody's Headache Award: Davey Allison
AP Parts Meet the Challenge Award:
True Value Hard Charger Award: Bill Elliott
Gatorade Circle of Champions Award: Bill Elliott
Plasti-kote Winning Finish Award: Tim Brewer (Elliott)
Western Auto Mechanic of the Race: Danny Glad (Kulwicki)
Unocal 76 Challenge: $22,800 available to polesitter Rick Mast – not won (rollover)
- Alan Kulwicki, 4078 points
- Bill Elliott, −10
- Davey Allison, −63
- Harry Gant, −123
- Kyle Petty, −133
- Mark Martin, −191
- Ricky Rudd, −343
- Terry Labonte, −404
- Darrell Waltrip, −419
- Sterling Marlin, −475
This race is considered the transition from the old age of NASCAR to the new age. As veteran Richard Petty retired, future champion Jeff Gordon made his debut. Gordon is one of the most successful and popular drivers NASCAR's modern era. This is also the only race in NASCAR history to feature Petty, Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt taking the green flag together. All three are considered among the best NASCAR drivers of all time. In total, nine former or future NASCAR Winston Cup champions drove in the race; Morgan Shepherd was a former Late Model Sportsman Series champion; and Mike Skinner (who failed to qualify) would eventually win the Truck Series championship – accounting for 11 NASCAR touring series champions entered in the event.
The race took place on the old "classic oval" configuration of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Later, Atlanta was re-configured to a quad-oval layout, and the start/finish line was moved to the old backstretch.
After coming up short in the championship battle, Bill Elliott's crew chief Tim Brewer was fired from Junior Johnson Motorsports. Had Elliot led the most laps, the season championship would have ended in a tie between Elliott and Kulwicki. Thus, Elliott would have been awarded the championship due to his having more wins during the season than Kulwicki (five to Kulwicki's two). This was perhaps Johnson's last hurrah as a team owner, as his cars never contended for a championship again. Despite Jimmy Spencer driving the team's #27 to two wins and Elliott recording a victory during the 1994 season, the team recorded more failure than success. Following the loss of his primary driver, Elliott, and his two sponsors, Budweiser and McDonald's, after the 1994 season, Johnson released Spencer and signed Lowe's to sponsor the #11 for one more season. He sold the operation to driver Brett Bodine in 1996 and retired.
The 1992 season was also considered Dale Earnhardt's worst season of his career, finishing outside of the top ten in points, with only one win all season. He led the race early, but pitted at a yellow and fell a lap down. After battling back to the lead lap, he brushed the wall and finished 26th.
Capping off the season with an 8th-place finish, Jimmy Hensley locked up the 1992 Rookie of the Year award. The rookie race for 1992 was mostly uncompetitive, however, as Hensely won by a large margin. All of the eligible rookies ran only partial schedules in 1992.
This was also the final race Dick Beaty served as the NASCAR director, as he retired after the 1992 season. It was also Eddie Bierschwale's final career start.
The race broke the existing ESPN auto racing television audience record, registering a 4.1 rating and 2.5 million households. It fell just short of ESPN's all-time auto racing rating record (4.2 rating/1.8 million households for the 1987 Winston 500).
Alan Kulwicki stood as the last owner-driver to win a series championship until Tony Stewart accomplished the feat in 2011. Like in 1992, the championship came down to the final race and was decided by a tiebreaker when Stewart won the race to tie Carl Edwards for the points lead and was awarded the title by virtue of his five victories.
Two of the principals in the championship chase that the Hooters 500 resolved would not survive the next season. On April 1, 1993, three days before the Food City 500 at Bristol, Alan Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash along with Hooters executives, while they were flying back from an appearance at a Hooters restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee.
A little over three months later on July 12, 1993, Davey Allison was flying his helicopter to Talladega Superspeedway to watch his friend David Bonnett (Neil Bonnett's son) test a Busch Series car. While trying to land the helicopter in a closed-in section of the Talladega infield, Allison crashed and suffered grave head injuries. He died the next morning.
Both Kulwicki and Allison were in the top five of the Cup series points at the time of their deaths, with Allison recording a victory at Richmond. Allison and Kulwicki were also invited to participate in IROC XVII based on their performances, with Kulwicki automatically qualifying as the NASCAR Winston Cup champion, and at the time of their deaths, both drivers were in the top five in IROC points. Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt took over for the deceased drivers and Labonte's effort in the final two IROC races gave the series title to Allison posthumously.
To commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the race, Jeff Gordon served as grand marshal and Richard Petty the honorary starter for the 2007 Pep Boys Auto 500 that took place on October 28, 2007.Wheels of fortune: Kulwicki reigned supreme on a day when NASCAR's history took a right turn; Dave Kallmann; November 15, 2002 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; accessed October 2, 2007.
Six Races That Changed NASCAR: Part 3 – 1992 Hooters 500
1992 Hooters 500: Need I say more?; Dave Kallmann (Journal Sentinel), accessed October 5, 2011.