With two races remaining in the 1992 season, Junior Johnson felt a sense of comfort that his driver, Bill Elliott, could win the NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
Elliott held a 70-point lead over Davey Allison and he was 80 ahead of Alan Kulwicki. The three were the only drivers with a realistic shot at the title.
Of course, Johnson realized that things could change in just one race. But it was hard to anticipate that Elliott, who had already won four races, would fall victim to bad luck.
But at Phoenix, the race before the finale at Atlanta, that is exactly what happened.
What seemed to be a cakewalk for Junior Johnson & Associates turned into desperate struggle with two other drivers.
History would take notice.
Junior’s contributions to www.motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout most of the season.
As I’ve said before, late in the year, I thought Junior Johnson & Associates was in very good shape to win the 1992 Winston Cup championship.
After the 27th race of the season – at Rockingham, where Bill finished fifth – we had a 70-point margin over Davey, who finished 10th and 80 points over Alan, who finished 12th.
By the way, Alan did a fine job of putting himself into championship consideration. He had wrecked at Dover and fell 278 points behind Bill, who was in the lead and 154 points ahead of Davey – at the time.
However, in the space of four races Alan had come on like gangbusters, as the old cliché goes. He made up 198 points and moved from fourth to third in the standings.
He was right in the middle of the scrap for the championship and I had to admire him for his effort.
But as I’ve already indicated, it didn’t think there would be a “scrap” of any kind. All we had to do was race safe and avoid trouble and the points would come.
Then the bottom fell out.
At Phoenix, the next-to-last race of the season, we ran into disaster.
Bill didn’t lead a lap and very early in the race, his Ford began smoking. He made numerous pit stops but we couldn’t solve the problem.
The only thing Bill could do was limp around the track at a reduced speed, which is what he did. He finished 31st.
To make matters worse, Davey won the race. It was his fifth victory of the season.
Davey leapt over Bill in the standings. After Phoenix, Davey was 40 points ahead of Bill. To make matters worse, Alan finished fourth at Phoenix and moved into second place, 30 behind Davey and 10 ahead of Bill.
In one race Bill had fallen from the points lead to third place. Now, we knew this could happen but we never expected it.
Bill said that anything could happen in one race and, of course, he was right. After Phoenix, he also said he felt he wasn’t out of the championship picture – but said he really wasn’t in it, either.
As for the engine problem at Phoenix, we discovered that the machinery that milled the cylinder heads didn’t mill the heads smoothly. It essentially gouged the head and caused the head gasket to fail.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just a case of incredibly bad luck. And, I might add, at a very bad time.
The final race of the year was the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. With only 40 points separating the top three championship contenders, the track wasn’t going to have any problem selling tickets.
There was something else.
The race was going to be the last of Richard Petty’s distinguished career. All season long he had conducted his “Farewell Tour” and his legion of fans bought every piece of memorabilia they could.
I’m sure attendance at every race increased because many folks turned out to see Richard race one last time.
And I knew droves of them would be at Atlanta to see him compete in his final race.
As much as I admired Richard, and all he had accomplished in his career, I sure couldn’t pay him any attention.
Junior Johnson & Associates had work to do. No longer could we count on just piling up laps to win the championship.
Bill was no longer the leader with a healthy points margin. He was behind two other drivers and, somehow, had to make up a deficit of 40 points.
All Davey had to do was finish fifth and the title was his. Oh, yeah, I knew he could do that – easily.
Now, as calm as I might have been after Rockingham, I was downright edgy going into Atlanta.
Bill and Alan had to go all out at Atlanta if either one of them wanted to win the championship over Davey.
Essentially, they both HAD to win.
Well, one of them DID win.
But he didn’t become the champion.
How that came about helped make the 1992 Hooters 500 one of the greatest races in NASCAR history.