No Runny Eggs

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The best race for the NASCAR Cup – 25 years later

by @ 21:26 on November 15, 2017. Tags:
Filed under Sports.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the greatest race that decided the NASCAR Cup championship, the 1992 Hooters 500. On November 15, 1992, not one, not two, not three, not even four, but six drivers rolled into Atlanta Motor Speedway with a chance to hoist the Winston Cup after the 29th and last race of the 1992 season. As they fired up the engines, the standings, and their starting positions, were:

Davey Allison – 3928 points, starting 17th
Alan Kulwicki – 3898 points, starting 14th
Bill Elliott – 3888 points, starting 11th
Harry Gant – 3831 points, starting 29th
Kyle Petty – 3830 points, starting 20th
Mark Martin – 3815 points, starting 4th

While it was true that Gant, Petty and Martin would need to essentially win and have some bad things happen to the top three, given that each position gained between 11th and 6th was worth 4 additional points, each position gained between 6th and 1st was worth 5 additional points, and 5 points were available for both leading a lap and leading the most laps, Kulwicki and Elliott were easily within striking distance of Allison.

If the wild battle for the Cup weren’t enough, it was also 7-time Cup champion and all-time wins leader Richard Petty’s final race, ending a season-long curtain call. Meanwhile, a highly-touted Californian who would go on to leave an outsized mark on NASCAR, Jeff Gordon, was making his debut.

I normally don’t link to Wikipedia, but their article on the race is about as good a summary as one can hope for from an event in the pre-internet era. I’ll give a Cliff’s Notes version:

– During the first half of the race, five of the six contenders were running out front, with Kyle Petty struggling to stay on the lead lap.
– Just before the halfway point on lap 160, Martin’s engine expired, taking him out of the race and the championship hunt. He would finish 32nd.
– Just after the halfway point, Gant began to fade badly, going multiple laps down by lap 200. He would eventually end the race in 13th, 4 laps down.
– At the same time, Allison picked up some damage, but managed to stay on the lead lap, while Petty went a lap down. The race lead would essentially flip-flop between Kulwicki and Elliott from this point, with the points lead flip-flopping between those two and Allison until….
– On lap 254, Ernie Irvan spun and collected Allison, effectively ending his day. Allison would return to the track 43 laps down and finish 27th. In the race back to the yellow flag, Petty would get his lap back from Kulwicki. In what would turn out to be the pit strategy move of the race, neither Kulwicki nor Elliott pitted during that caution, while Terry Labonte did.
– Kulwicki would maintain the lead until lap 310, at least a lap beyond what his crew chief thought he could do on fuel and 3 to 4 laps beyond what they had earlier been discussing. By that time, Kulwicki had led 103 laps. Partly because of the few number of laps left, partly because he had lost first gear, the team went for a fuel-only stop for the second consecutive time. The crew cut the timing on the pit stop very close, as it took 6 seconds to dump a full 11-gallon can into the car back in the day, they spent 3.4 seconds on the pit stop, and they figured he would need 6 gallons to finish the race.
– At the same time, Petty’s engine started to blow up. He would retire after making 320 laps, finishing 16th.
– On lap 314, Elliott came down for his final stop, also for just fuel. His crew performed an identical 3.4-second pit stop, but he got back up to speed ahead of Kulwicki as his car still had first gear. However, he gave up the lead to Labonte, who pitted just a lap later after leading his only lap of the race.
– Elliott comfortably resumed the lead after Labonte pitted and never relinquished it. Elliott won the race while leading 102 laps. Meanwhile, Kulwicki settled comfortably into 2nd, where he finished the race.

Had Kulwicki and Elliott finished tied in the points, Elliott would have won the championship because he won more races. Had Kulwicki led just 2 fewer laps, finished 4th instead of 2nd, or led 1 fewer lap and finished 3rd, the first tie for the championship in the modern era would not have been in 2011, but 1992. As it was, until the Chase artificially closed the points differential after the regular season, the 1992 season was the closest points finish in the modern era, and it was the third-closest until the “elimination” Chases began, behind only 2004 and 2011.

The final points standings were:

Alan Kulwicki – 4078
Bill Elliott – 4068
Davey Allison – 4015
Harry Gant – 3955
Kyle Petty – 3945
Mark Martin – 3887

It is a somber remembrance, as Kulwicki and Allison passed away the following year. Gant would retire after the 1994 season. Elliott would have some more success, but would never get as close to a second championship as he did in 1992. His car owner, Junior Johnson, would be out of NASCAR after the 1995 season. Petty would have one more good year, then fade. Only Martin would have sustained success, though the Cup would continue to elude him.

This incredible race would not have been nearly as compelling under any of the Chase formats. Under each of the first three (non-elimination) Chase formats, Kyle Petty would have had nearly a full race lead going into Atlanta on Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki, with Ricky Rudd also almost a full race behind under the 2007-2010 version of the Chase, and Petty would have been Winston Cup champ under all 3 formats.

Under the two “elimination” Chase formats, both Kulwicki and Bill Elliott would have been out after the second round, with Petty, Martin, Davey Allison and Harry Gant dueling it out at Atlanta. The Cup champ under both formats would have been Gant, finishing 4 laps down in 13th. Kulwicki would have finished 5th in the points under both formats. Elliott would have finished in 10th under the 2014-2015 format and 9th by the tiebreaker under the 2016 format as Ron Hornaday Jr. would not have been starting the penultimate Pyroil 500k and finishing ahead of Elliott in that race.

As it is impossible to estimate how stage racing would have affected the results of past races, especially the second stage of any given race and the races that were held at North Carolina Motor Speedway or North Wilkesboro, it is impossible to tell how 1992 would have turned out under this year’s rules. However, I strongly suspect that, like the various Chase hypotheticals, the 1992 Playoffs would not have been as exciting as the real thing.

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