Just three points separate Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards as they settle the 2011 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But is this really the greatest (or even the closest) title fight ever? Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese takes a look back at the greatest last-lap championship finishes in NASCAR’s history.
Much has been and will be made this weekend about the “closest championship battle ever.” Many pundits have bandied about how the 2011 Chase for the Championship is “the greatest championship fight ever,” “the closest title fight ever” or “the best Chase yet.” That might not be true if your name is Kyle Busch — or if you were watching the sport before Jimmie Johnson decided to make a career out of destroying records and invalidating a number of title formats.
This year marks the first time somebody other than Johnson will win the title since before vampire movies were relevant. So let’s reflect back on some of those “other” championship battles that went down to the final race. After all, if this year is supposed to be the greatest and most dramatic championship ever, it would have to be gauged against the following five title bouts.
1973: Benny Parsons vs. Richard Petty vs. Cale Yarborough
It was the early ’70s. Music sucked, the cars were getting slow and everybody wore their hair and dressed like a dirtball or a terrorist. It was also a time when Richard Petty began to build upon the legacy that would earn him the nickname “The King,” having won back-to-back titles in 1971 and ’72.
Going into the final race at Rockingham, Benny Parsons held a 194.5-point lead over Petty. Parsons, driving a Chevrolet for L.G. DeWitt, qualified fifth and was running by his lonesome when a car spun on the backstretch. Parsons clipped it, ripping the entire right side off of the car — including the roll cage. There was only one other car that didn’t qualify for the event and that was still at the track — a car owned by Ralph Moody of legendary Ford-tandem Holman-Moody fame. Moody’s car became a donor for Parsons’ mangled machine.
BP returned to the action 136 laps down, but was able to hold off Cale Yarborough in the championship battle by 67.15 points. It would be the only Cup title for Parsons, whose feat prevented Petty from winning five consecutive championships.
1979: Darrell Waltrip vs. Richard Petty
As the worst decade ever came to a close, a new age in NASCAR dawned. Darrell Waltrip brought a brash attitude and trash-talking to the stock car scene, while The King was not quite ready to abdicate the throne. While DW may have pulled a slide job on Petty to win at Darlington in the Rebel 500, the championship would come down to the final event in Ontario, Calif. — the spiritual sister track to The Brickyard.
Petty trailed Waltrip by two points heading into the final race (a true two-point margin, mind you; Tony Stewart would trail Carl Edwards by 15 points under this same system). On the 38th lap of the event, a car spun in front of Waltrip, who also spun in an effort to avoid hitting what may have been in the cloud of smoke ahead of him. This was before the era of any sort of electronic timing and scoring or transponders, and Waltrip believed he was the leader, having pitted just once to the leaders’ two stops. Later, Waltrip’s crew chief would confirm his greatest fear: he was actually one lap down.
Petty would finish fifth to Waltrip’s eighth that day. It was the seventh and final championship for Petty, and an improbable one at that, as 10 races prior, Petty was 227 points out of the lead. Considering how out to lunch Tony Stewart and the No. 14 team were stumbling into the Chase this season, the final 1979 race in Ontario should provide some inspiration for the owner/driver of Stewart-Haas Racing.
2004: Five-Way Chase Race
There were a lot of naysayers when the term “The Chase” entered the NASCAR lexicon following 19 seasons of sensational championship showdowns. Unfortunately, two of the final four NASCAR seasons were less than thrilling, with Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth conspiring to give credence to a new points format — one that the “casual sports fan” would be more accustomed to.
While many bemoaned the very idea of change and cursed the billion-dollar network television deal which spawned this hideous monster, come Homestead in November 2004, there were five drivers with a shot at the first Nextel Cup.
Kurt Busch entered the event with a scant 18-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin mathematically in contention for the crown. As cheesy as it sounds, the wheels of Busch’s championship chase literally did come off of Lap 93, as a loose right front wheel gave way on his car. Busch, sensing something was amiss, ducked to pit road as the wheel separated itself from the machine, and he narrowly missed hitting the pit road barrier. The errant Goodyear Eagle then bounded down the frontstretch, brought out a caution and, as a result, Busch remained on the lead lap.
A late-race, two-lap scramble saw Busch’s teammate, Greg Biffle, win the event, preventing Johnson from gaining a position and leading a lap — and ultimately falling short of a championship. Had Johnson gotten by Biffle, he would have won by two points. As it stands, the first Chase season was the closest ever and, in hindsight, nearly thrust Johnson within but one title of immortality alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty’s seven Cup titles.
1990: The Blue Oval Brigade vs. Dale Earnhardt
Rusty Wallace and the No. 27 Raymond Beadle-owned team did everything humanly possible to lose the championship in 1989, but somehow outlasted Dale Earnhardt by 12 points. While Wallace jumped up and down on his hood, the Intimidator went and sulked in his tree stand.
The 1990 season was supposed to be all Earnhardt, as he looked to finally win the Daytona 500 and his fourth championship. The 500 ended with the checkered flag in sight for Earnhardt and a piece of Ricky Rudd’s bell housing slicing open his tire. There was also the matter of an upstart Ford team, which a year earlier served notice that a Midwest short-track ace getting his second shot at stardom and a Michigan-based engineer with a road- and drag-race background were going to be sticking around for the foreseeable future in the form of Mark Martin and Jack Roush.
Martin and Earnhardt emerged during the summer months as the two title contenders, with Martin assuming the points lead in June despite a dubious 46-point fine regarding a welded intake spacer that was technically legal after Martin won the third race of the season in Richmond. There used to be a week off prior to the final race in Atlanta, and the Ford teams had one mission: defeat General Motors and deny it a championship. While the No. 6 Roush team had won the August event at Michigan, all of the Ford camps colluded during the week of testing prior to the final race to conjure up the ultimate Thunderbird — the original Roush/Yates collaboration.
What resulted was a good idea gone awry: A car that pushed like an Amish haycart and had air in the brake lines. Earnhardt finished third, Martin sixth, and the Intimidator took his fourth Cup title by 26 points.
1992: The Greatest Championship Battle and Single Race in NASCAR History.
There are certain sports highlights that are ingrained in the minds of fans everywhere. If you’re a baseball fan, it’s Kirk Gibson hobbling around second, fist pumping, after going yard on a bum wheel. If you’re a football fan, it’s Montana to Clark in slow motion. If you’re a NASCAR fan, it’s everything that happened in the 1992 Hooters 500.
We’ve all become accustomed to the pre-race flyover, but it isn’t often that you have AH-64 Apaches pacing the field around the track.
It was Jeff Gordon’s first race and Richard Petty’s fiery finale, replete with on-air demands of safety workers to, “Get the ****in’ fire extinguisher!” (little wonder where Kurt Busch gets it from). Six drivers entered the final race with a shot at the championship: Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison (despite nearly getting killed twice in racing accidents that year), Mark Martin, Kyle Petty and Harry Gant.
Martin dominated the middle stages of the race before succumbing to a burned piston, while Allison was taken out by a swervin’ Ernie Irvan. That left it to Awesome Bill and the Kulwicki’s Underbird. Kulwicki needed to lead one more lap than Elliott to prevent him from leading the most laps — had he not, Elliott would have won the tie-breaker based on wins (five victories to Kulwicki’s two).
If Tony Stewart is in need of any sort of motivation this weekend as he attempts to eclipse Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings, he should pop in a tape of this race. The original stock car engineer, who kept St. Christopher wings under his seat and a comb in his pocket, realized the unlikely dream when he set forth down south from Greenfield, Wisc., six years earlier. Kulwicki finished second to Elliott in the race, but won the big prize by 10 points — ending the greatest championship battle and single race in NASCAR history.