<
>

Tales of the King, Intimidator, Awesome Bill and more

11/16/2007

There have been some great closing acts in recent NASCAR history. Almost every year, the driver who won the championship had to at least show something on the season's last day to win the big trophy. Here are five final races in recent history that stand out above the others:

5. Nov. 18, 1979, at Ontario, Calif.

It's not nice to taunt the King. Darrell Waltrip, feeling his oats with a huge lead through much of the season, didn't heed this lesson, teasing the six-time champion over and over again, trying to get him to crack.

But in the span of six races, Petty closed a 187-point spread to just two going into the final race of the season at Ontario. By then, Waltrip was toast.

Petty beat him by three positions on the track and won his seventh Cup title by 11 points. Waltrip would have to lick his wounds and come back another day.

Throughout the late-season surge, Petty never said a retaliatory word. He let his driving do the talking. Perhaps that is why he was and always will be the King.

4. Nov. 20, 1983, at Riverside, Calif.

Four years later, Waltrip went at it for a third consecutive year with another of the sport's biggest names, Bobby Allison.

Waltrip, the driver fans loved to hate, and Allison, one of their favorites, had battled for the two previous championships, and Waltrip had come from behind both times to catch Allison at the finish.

Allison had never won a championship, and this one was slipping away as well. He led by 64 points entering the race, but that margin was gone when he had a flat tire and an engine problem. With 11 laps to go, it looked like DW was headed for the trifecta.

But a tangle with Tim Richmond sent Waltrip spinning, and Allison was charging hard. By the end of the race, he had made up more than enough positions to take home his one and only title, by 47 points.

The two heated rivals are like Ali and Frazier to this day.

3. Nov. 19, 1989, at Atlanta

Rusty Wallace knew who was behind him. Dale Earnhardt's nickname said it all. The Intimidator. With one race to go Wallace needed only to stay within 19 finishing positions of Earnhardt to win his first championship.

Before he knew it, Wallace was a lap behind Earnhardt. He had a flat tire. Lug nuts chewed through one of his wheel rims. He did everything but run out of gas, it seemed.

But Wallace came back. Even though Earnhardt won the race, Wallace finished 15th. It was enough to win the championship by 12 points. Earnhardt would have to wait for another title. He finished with seven. This was Wallace's lone championship, and he earned every bit of it.

2. Nov. 21, 2004, at Homestead, Fla.

Everything was going against Kurt Busch in the season finale at Homestead. Behind him were tag teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, each trying desperately to win a championship for grieving car owner Rick Hendrick, who had lost his brother, son, and several others close to him in a tragic plane crash late in the year.

In the first year of the Chase, Busch must have felt like a gazelle staying just ahead of a pride of lions. They almost caught him when he narrowly avoided a wreck early on, then missed the wall at the pit road entrance by inches as his car had a broken wheel. But Busch survived that threat, not to mention four extra laps brought on by a late restart. It was as if the only people trying to help Busch win at Homestead were the members of his crew.

But Busch held firm, finishing fifth. Two places lower and the title would have been Johnson's. Johnson and Gordon finished second and third in both the race and the championship. The eight points that separated Busch and Johnson was the closest finish in NASCAR history.

1. Nov. 15, 1992, at Atlanta

This one had everything. Championship drama. The end of an era. The beginning of another. Had the promoters known what they had on their hands, they probably could have named their price on the tickets.

Davey Allison and Bill Elliott were the two most popular drivers vying for the championship that year. Allison inherited the following left behind by his father Bobby, uncle Donnie and family friend Neil Bonnett. Elliott, meanwhile, was Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, NASCAR's perennial most popular driver.

Who would have thought that Wisconsin native Alan Kulwicki, perched between them in the points, would sneak out of Atlanta Motor Speedway with the championship?

Allison, the points leader cruising to the title, made it possible when he crashed with 100 miles to go. That left hometown hero Elliott to battle upstart Kulwicki. Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki won the title by 10 points. How? By leading 103 laps. Elliott led 102. Those five bonus points earned for leading the most laps, coupled with the five that Elliott didn't get, were the difference. One lap.

One lap by Richard Petty gathered the loudest applause of the day. Petty finished 35th, but this was his 1,185th and final race. Meanwhile, it was the first race for one Jeff Gordon, who finished 31st.

It was a crazy afternoon, one in which six cars entered the race with a chance to win the title. One of them won the race and still didn't win the title. And the loudest ovation went to the man who finished several laps down.