Tag Archives: Davey Allison

No Ordinary Rookie

 

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Past meets future as Jeff Gordon passes the torch to a new generation, and a new legacy for the 24.

Coming into a big time sport as a rookie with enormous hype is one of the tougher challenges in sports. The pressure, the change in lifestyle, the new found fame, it’s no wonder so many rookies have crumbled under such expectations, some to the point of no recovery.

But imagine the challenge when not only you are hyped up to be the next great thing, BUT you are also the immediate successor to a legend. And by legend, I mean legend. I’m not talking about trying to replace an all-star like Jason Heyward in your lineup, or Joe Johnson on your basketball team. I’m talking about trying to replace Babe Ruth or Kobe Bryant.

Jeff Gordon is in the argument for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Not just of his era, but of any era, and his three year stretch from 1996 thru 1998 is still one of the most dominant periods in modern American sports, but that’s another story for another day. Being tabbed to replace Jeff Gordon, with Gordon going out while making NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and competing for a fifth championship, has few valid comparisons in sports history.

While similar to replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, it’s still different. In football you still have 52 other guys on the roster. You still have the same team, with the same logo, and many of the same players. You still have the same history of an organization that existed before that particular legend became a part of it. At the end of the day, you’re still one of many people to play quarterback for the 49ers or for the Colts.

What Chase is doing replacing Jeff Gordon is almost unparalleled. The only person to ever win a Sprint Cup race in a car numbered 24 is, for the time being anyway, Jeff Gordon. The commercial isn’t hyperbole or inaccurate in anyway, 24 is more than a number. It is a legacy all on it’s own, and it’s a legacy created by one man.

But within the past five to seven years it began to dawn on us all that at some point, that one man would no longer continue to drive competitively at this level. So what then? Would Rick Hendrick, the owner who took a chance on the fast but crash happy 20-year-old kid back in the early 90s retire the number? Or would he look for a successor? And would it be an established veteran or would he try to repeat history with another young hotshot?

In February of 2011 the plan began to take shape when Rick Hendrick signed a 15-year-old high school freshman from Georgia to a multi-year driver agreement.

The driver? Chase Elliott. You know, son of another NASCAR legend, Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott.

By 2013 Elliott was winning races in the truck series, and by 2014 was running full-time in the Xfinity Series, where as an 18-year-old rookie he not only won three races, he also took home Most Popular Driver, Rookie of the Year, and the series championship.

By January of 2015, with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 would be his last season of competitive racing, Elliott was tabbed with the most pressure packed responsibility since Kevin Harvick slid into the seat of Richard Childress’ GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in February of 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2016 with Elliott coming off a 2015 season in which he followed up his championship by finishing second in points and winning another race. For the first time since November of 1992, a premier series NASCAR event was set to take place without Jeff Gordon in it.

However, the 24 car would be there. But with a new look, though the number kept it’s same font and style, new sponsors, and more importantly, a new driver.

All eyes were on the 20-year-old who promptly went out and won the pole for the biggest race of the year. Typically, the fastest qualifier is awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Only Elliott isn’t of legal drinking age and ineligible for such an aware, or to carry such a decal on his racecar.

So here we are, hot shot 20-year-old kid considered the next big thing, replacing one of the greatest to ever participate in the sport and taking over a car number that’s a legacy and as iconic as almost any number in sports, on the pole for the biggest race of the year, and, oh yeah, in addition to the huge shoes of Jeff Gordon to fill, there’s the small matter of being Bill Elliott’s son.

Nobody can sustain these kind of expectations and possibly live up to the hype, right? Surely the kid is going to crumble. Maybe not beyond repair, but we should be pumping the brakes a bit on his rookie season, no? Give him a couple of years to really get his feet wet and settle into his role, right?

No, not this rookie. Not this rookie who, well, really doesn’t seem like a rookie.

We know what happened at Daytona, the 500 turned into a disaster early. Immediately the criticism began, and it looked like maybe the moment was too big right now. It was too much pressure. Maybe Rick Hendrick had brought him along too soon.

Or maybe any such notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Elliott rebounded from that 37th place finish with a strong top ten run at his home track of Atlanta the next week, only to have a very questionable pit strategy decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson cost him multiple positions late in the race at Las Vegas and leave him mired back in the pack after running up in the top ten all race long. Eventually Elliott would get collected in a wreck not of his own making and finish 38th.

In an interview following the Las Vegas wreck Elliott seemed extremely frustrated, and placed a lot of the blame, needlessly I might add, on himself. He knew what was happening. He had wrecked in two of the first three races, and the naysayers were going to get louder.

Well that’s as loud as they’ve gotten. Since the wreck at Vegas Elliott has done nothing but silence even the most skeptical of critics. Over the last six races Elliott has an average finish of 8.5 and has moved himself solidly into playoff position. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. He has established himself as a viable threat to win races.

Over the last four races Elliott has finishes of 6th, 20th, 5th, and 4th. In three of those four races he found himself in second position at some point in the race’s final 15%, and without late cautions at California, Texas and Bristol, could very well be looking at a streak of three runner-up finishes in his last four races, though many would argue without a caution at Texas, he may very well have won.

But to truly appreciate what Elliott has done so far this year, you have to put it into perspective by comparing it to the debuts of some other stars in recent, or not so recent, memory.

The chart below illustrates how some of NASCAR’s top drivers and strongest rookie campaigns compare to Elliott’s after the first eight events of their first full-time season. With rookies being rookies and apt to putting cars into fences, the chart also looks at their average finish by taking away the two worst performances in the season’s first eight races, to give a better indicator of how they finished when they, well, actually finished.

Age Top 5 Top 10 Avg St Avg Fin Best 6 Avg Points
Chase Elliott 20 2 5 12 15.8 8.5 12
Jeff Gordon 21 2 4 10.7 16.5 10.7 12
Kyle Busch 20 1 2 24.3 21.4 15.7 25
Jimmie Johnson 26 1 5 14.7 13.3 7.2 7
Tony Stewart 28 0 2 9.9 16.8 11.7 10
Dale Earnhardt Sr 28 2 3 9.1 11.8 8.3 8
Bill Elliott 27 4 5 11 11.5 6.8 5
Dale Earnhardt Jr 25 1 2 8.5 22 16.3 19
Ryan Newman 24 2 4 13.4 19.8 12.8 16
Davey Allison 26 1 2 7.4 18.8 18.8 21
Matt Kenseth 28 0 2 17.1 21.8 15.7 21
Joey Logano 19 0 0 25.4 29.1 25.3 33
Kyle Larson 21 2 4 16.4 16.1 10.7 14
Jeff Gordon 2015 1 5 11.7 16.3 9.3 9

 

*note, Davey Allison didn’t attempt races six through eight, but came back and won race number nine at Talladega, and won again at Dover, giving him two wins in his first eight starts of his rookie, but not within the first eight races of the season*

Elliott compares favorably to the majority on this list. In fact, factoring age, depending on which aspect you value more heavily, an argument could be made that his start to his career has been as impressive, if not more, than anyone on this list.

The only drivers on this list to have five top ten finishes among the first eight races are Jimmie Johnson and then the father and son duo of Bill and Chase and Elliott. Bill Elliott was the only one to finish in the top five on more than two occasions, and the only one sitting in the top five in points (he would finish 3rd and capture his first career win in the season finale at Riverside) at this juncture of the season. However, it should also be noted that the elder Elliott had run 21 races the year before (not a full season) and despite having never run 75% of the schedule, had started nearly 100 races before the 1983 season began, so he wasn’t exactly a rookie.

While the Elliotts are the only ones on the list with five top tens and more than one top five finish, the Earnhardts are the only ones who won a race this early in the going of their rookie season. There is a reason NASCAR is known as such a family sport, after all.

Elliott’s average finish of 15.8 is topped by the asterisked elder Elliott, and then only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. I guess that’s not bad company. I mean, the two non Elliotts only combined to win nearly 150 races and 13 championships between them.

And just for good measure, I took the time to see how Elliott is doing through eight races this year as compared to that guy he took over for, that Gordon fella.

I’d say he’s doing a mighty fine job stepping into those shoes in the 24 car. And he’s only trending upwards.

I said weeks ago I thought Richmond would be Elliott’s first win. His career average finish in the Xfinity Series there is 2.5, having finished second on two occasions, won once, and fifth in his other appearance. With the trend of how the team has been running lately, that prediction may very well come true.

But even if it doesn’t, Elliott has proven Hendrick knew what he was doing, and that the 24 would be in good hands and Elliott is not only capable of simply carrying the number into the future, but he may very well be able to give that number a new legacy for an entirely new generation of fans.

 

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The Daytona 500, A Half Century of Heartbreak

They say that nobody remembers who finishes in second place. Whoever says that clearly doesn’t understand the history of the Daytona 500.

Not only do we often remember the drivers who lost the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion, sometimes we remember these victims of soul crushing defeats more than the winner themselves. Take 1979, do you remember who won? I bet you recall who wrecked in turn three on the last lap though. Quick, who led them across the line in 1990? Need a second? Ok, who cut a tire while leading a mere mile from victory? Do you remember the man who won in 2007, or the man he beat to the stripe by agonizing inches?

While we celebrate and memorialize the triumphs, we also vividly recall devastating and gut wrenching shortcomings just as much, if not more.

What is considered by many to be one of the greatest triumphs in Daytona 500 history is not remembered for the race itself, which was rather pedestrian, but for the immense heartbreak the winner had endured in prior Daytona 500s.

So while many will spend the week lauding the victors in Daytona 500s past, let’s not forget the most agonizing defeats.

Beginning tomorrow I’ll count down the 10 who have suffered the biggest heartbreak at the hands of The Great American Race during the past 50 years. But to get things started, I’ll list some that just missed the list, including a look at a Daytona 500 that took the wind right out of the sails of not a driver, but rather we the fans. And no, not 2001, that one is discussed enough, besides, its tragedy wasn’t yet known at the time of the conclusion of the event.

Honorable Mentions

The Fans, 1992

Weather had never postponed the Daytona 500 until 2012, but that doesn’t mean it never left the fans holding the bag by denying the fans a true finish.

The 1965, 2003 and 2009 versions were cut short due to rain, and each left fans feeling short changed with an incomplete, less than “true” finish. However, neither of those runnings featured the emptiness the ultimate fan heartbreak version contained.

The 1992 Daytona 500 promised to be one of the best in recent memory. Story lines flew in from everywhere. Bill Elliott, synonymous with Daytona success in the 80’s, was driving for the legendary Junior Johnson, his first foray out of the family shop in Dawsonville, Georgia. Second generation driver Davey Allison ended the previous season as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit and was poised to have the Allison name back at the top of the sport. Darrell Waltrip was returning to Daytona, site of two horrific accidents in the last year and a half. Then you had Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs making his debut in NASCAR with another second generation driver carrying a legendary name, Dale Jarrett. Dale Earnhardt, fresh off three straight narrow losses was STILL trying to win the Daytona 500, and there was the small matter of this being the final Daytona 500 start in the storied career of “The King” Richard Petty, he the winner of seven Daytona 500’s.

Unfortunately, all but one of these story lines was deemed irrelevant before halfway.

On lap 92, Elliott, having established himself as perhaps the strongest car in the field, was battling teammate and pole sitter Sterling Marlin for the lead in turns one and two when defending race champion Ernie Irvan dove beneath the two of them exiting turn two. The ill fated move only needed seconds to turn into a disaster. The three tangled and before the smoke cleared, just about anybody and everybody wound up with a wrecked racecar. Elliott, Irvan, Marlin, Waltrip, Jarrett, Petty, and Earnhardt were all among those involved. Additionally notable names like Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader and Mark Martin also found their days ruined. Only a small handful of cars that had proven to be of any consequence survived the incident unscathed, and only two of them (Michael Waltrip and Morgan Sheppard) had any hope of being able to match up with the strongest survivor, Davey Allison.

Sheppard and Waltrip (who saw his chance at victory evaporate due to late engine failure) combined to lead 10 of the final 109 laps. Allison easily led the other 99 and had no trouble keeping Sheppard at bay down the stretch and across the line.

What promised to be one of the best Daytona 500’s, perhaps ever, quickly became a snooze fest with all the on track competition of a Formula 1 race for the final 250 miles.

Darrell Waltrip 1984

Much was made of it taking Waltrip 17 years to win the Daytona 500, and while the number of failed attempts for one of the ten greatest drivers ever was frustrating, the manner in which he lost pales in comparison to the nature of losses suffered by a couple of other multi-time series champions.

However, in 1984 Waltrip held the lead on the final lap, unfortunately the man who’d been trailing him for 38 laps was doing so according to plan. And that man was the guy who’d been fastest all week. Cale Yarborough executed the sling shot perfectly and before it was over Waltrip was relegated to third. Of all of his failed attempts to win, this was easily the closest he’d been to victory, more so than the bizarre 1979 runner-up performance.

David Pearson, 1975

With ten laps left, Pearson held a seemingly insurmountable lead of 5.2 seconds over Benny Parsons. When it was over Pearson found himself two laps down in fourth place.

With drafting assistance from Richard Petty, eight laps in arrears himself and eager to assist in the defeat of his arch rival, Parsons began cutting into the lead, and had it down to two seconds with three laps left.

Pearson, now under far more pressure than he expected was trying to navigate lap traffic, and doing so with much more urgency. The urgency resulted in Pearson tangling with Cale Yarborough sending the Wood Brothers owned Mercury sliding into the grass and Parsons into victory lane.

What would’ve happened had Petty pulled Parsons all the way to Pearson? We’ll never know. What we do know is Pearson never got the chance to fend off Parsons charge, only made possible itself thanks to a driver multiple laps behind.

Ken Schrader, 1989

All he did was win the pole, dominate the Busch Clash en route to victory, do the same thing in the Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday, and then lead 114 of the first 189 laps in the Daytona 500. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. The aforementioned Waltrip, in his 17th try to win the 500, managed to stretch his fuel considerably longer than anyone else and “stole” the Daytona 500 from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Buddy Baker, 1973

Richard Petty may have won the race, but there was no doubt who had the best car.

Despite a faster late race pit stop that appeared to have won the race for Petty, Baker showed the superiority in his Dodge while chasing Petty down at a rate that ensured he’d get to Petty’s back bumper before the end of the race.

Unfortunately his engine expired six laps from the finish, and despite leading a whopping 157 laps, Baker finished sixth.

Bobby Allison, 1981

Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, as Petty found out in 1973 and 1974. And sometimes its better to be smart than fast.

Bobby Allison led for 117 laps from the pole, this after also winning his qualifier on Thursday. But when he made his final pit stop on lap 173 he took on right side tires, requiring a 17.4 second pit stop.

When Petty made his stop two laps later crew chief Dale Inman decided to forego fresh tires, opting only for gas only, resulting in a stop that was seven seconds quicker than his rival’s, creating a lead that Allison could never overcome.

Sterling Marlin, 2002

Short is the list of drivers who won the Daytona 500 more than twice, but if not for one of the most memorable boneheaded moves in sports history, it might be one longer.

While attempting to get underneath race leader Jeff Gordon on a late restart, Marlin came into contact with the four time champion, resulting in Gordon sliding thru the grass sideways and Marlin edging Ward Burton back to the line to get the caution, and presumably (pre GWC days) the win.

But instead of finishing under yellow, NASCAR opted to red flag the field to ensure a race to the checkered flag (a few losers of previous 500s wonder where this was in 1991 and 1997) under green flag conditions. Under the red flag, during which no work may be done on the racecar, Marlin became worried about the right front fender rubbing, and potentially cutting, the right front tire as a result of the contact with Gordon.

Marlin hopped out of his car on the back stretch and to the dismay of everyone, began tugging on the fender. Per NASCAR rules, Marlin was ordered to the rear of the field for the day’s final restart, ending his quest for a third Daytona 500 victory.

Would Marlin have pitted and lost track position regardless? Would the tire have held up for five miles? We don’t know the answer to either question.

And truthfully, most of us don’t even know that Ward Burton won the Daytona 500 that day, but we all know Sterling Marlin didn’t.

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Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 26-30

2000 Daytona 500

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Rules had been changed prior to the 2000 season for NASCAR’s restrictor plate races, and the result was one of the most boring Daytona 500’s in the sports history. For a race that in years since has seen as many as 74 lead changes, a pass for the lead under green flag conditions simply was not going to happen on this particular Sunday. In fact, for the duration of Speed Weeks, the only passes made for the lead were made immediately after a restart.

None of this of course diminishes what Dale Jarrett and his Robert Yates team accomplished. The defending Winston Cup Champion and two time Daytona 500 winner had been the class of the field all week, so it was probably appropriate that he still won the Daytona 500. The only race that Jarrett did not win that week his Gatorade 125 mile qualifier, as he finished 2nd to Bill Elliott, who took the lead on the opening lap and never relinquished it. Jarrett though had already won the pole for the Daytona 500, and won the Bud Shootout as well.

The race was perhaps best known for the frustration and anger expressed afterwards by Mark Martin. With 14 laps to go, Martin was running second to surprise leader Johnny Benson when he made his move to the outside of Benson’s pontiac in turns one and two. Martin was under the impression that Jarrett, along with fellow Ford drivers Jeff Burton and Elliott, would go with him. Martin was wrong.

Jarrett bailed on Martin, and Burton and Elliott had no choice but to follow Jarrett through on the inside, moving Jarrett to the runner up spot in a position to challenge Benson himself. On a restart with just a handful of laps to go, Jarrett would get underneath Benson coming off of turn two and the Ford contingency, including Martin would follow.

The race only had nine lead changes, and just four over the duration of the final 165 laps in an event that would lead Dale Earnhardt to tell reporters that, “Bill France Sr. probably rolled over in his grave if he saw that”. Ironically, it would be this race that would prompt NASCAR to look into a new rules package for future plate events, and it would be those changes in the rules packages that helped contribute to the events of the 2001 Daytona 500.

29. 1992 Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Personally, this probably ranks as my least favorite Daytona 500, ever. I wasn’t but 7 years old at the time, but I think this particular race was the first time I ever wished death upon another human being, or said so aloud anyway.

This year marked the first year that my parents hosted a Daytona 500 party as well, and I remember many of my parents friends and some of their children at the house. I remember being very excited for this particular Daytona 500 as well. My favorite driver, Bill Elliott, had qualified on the outside poll and had won his Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday in his first time out driving for Junior Johnson. It was the first time in his career that Elliott had driven for a team other than the family outfit in Dawsonville, and it was off to a smashing success. Throw in the fact that the last time the circuit had come to Daytona in July of 1991 Elliott had been victorious, and I was feeling awfully good about his chances on this Sunday.

This race also marked the final Daytona 500 for Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” of the sport. By the halfway point of the race, both feel good stories were over.

Elliott and teammate Sterling Marlin (the pole sitter) dominated the early portion of the race, leading a combined 56 of the first 91 laps, with Davey Allison leading 28 thanks to a two tire pit stop. In other words, the Junior Johnson cars were the class of the field, and the world knew it.

But on lap 92 everything changed. First Marlin made a move on Elliott, then Irvan made a move on Marlin at the exit of turn two putting the three three abreast across the track. Calamity ensued. Just about anyone who had any chance of winning this race, and certainly anyone who I cared about winning, was involved. Pick a name, Martin, Earnhardt, Petty, Jarrett, Waltrip, Wallace, any of them, they were involved. The only three cars of consequence not involved were Allison, Morgan Shepherd, and Michael Waltrip. Every other contender was eliminated.

I remember crawling up on to my mom’s lap in absolute tears, yelling, “I wanna kill him, I wanna kill him”. The “him” I was referring to was Ernie Irvan. Two years ago at Darlington, while multiple laps in arrears, Irvan had caused a massive crash that effectively ended the career of Neil Bonnet. A year later, Irvan once again caused a massive crash, this time at Talladega, resulting in Kyle Petty suffering a broken leg. Needless to say, Irvan’s nickname of “Swervin Irvan” was well deserved. Unfortunately, this would not be the final time his wreckless and aggressive driving style would cause a problem.

In any event, the accident left Davey Allison with virtually no competition. He easily led all but 10 of the remaining 109 laps on his way to a Daytona 500 victory. In a season where Elliott lost the championship by a mere 10 points, I think one can see why I’m still very bitter about this race.

28. 2009 Daytona 500

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it's almost like nobody knows he even has one

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it’s almost like nobody knows he even has one

The previously mentioned two Daytona 500s may not have been a very good show to watch, but for their own reasons, they were at least memorable, even if not for something positive. The same cannot be said of the 2009 Daytona 500.

For starters, this was the third Daytona 500 I’d been to in person, and it was the third time I’d been treated to poor weather. So things were already off to a bad start.

Secondly, Kyle Busch led 88 of the races first 120 laps, and if you know anything about my fandom in NASCAR, you know I harbor an extreme dislike of the Busch boys.

Third, the race itself ultimately wound up being affected by the weather. Rain cut it short after just under 400 miles.

Fourth, the winner, well, he’s about as interesting as a manilla folder. It’s not that I have anything against Matt Kenseth, but he’s not exactly the big name you’re looking to see win if your guy can’t.

As mentioned, Kyle Busch led 88 of the first 120 laps, so I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been forced to watch him win the thing, as it certainly appeared that was going to be the case. However, after a caution on lap 120, Busch found himself out of the lead after pit-stops. And soon after, he found himself out of the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had already been having a bad day, the issues ranged from picking the wrong lines in traffic, to errors on pit road, to driver mistakes getting on and off pit-road. Apparently the frustrations affected his driving, and on the restart Earnhardt triggered a massive wreck on the backstretch that took out Busch, ending his day early.

Eventually on the restart, Matt Kenseth would work his way around Elliott Sadler, and when the rain fell following a caution for Eric Almirola with Kenseth leading, his place in Daytona history was secure.

27. 2004 Daytona 500

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior's in 2004

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior’s in 2004

Did I mention I was three for three when it came to bad weather at the Daytona 500? Fortunately, the race itself wasn’t impacted by weather in 2004, and in fact, once the show got going, the day turned out to be quite nice. But it didn’t start that way. I distinctly remember having to use my shirt as a koozie so my hands wouldn’t freeze while holding my beer can before the race got going.

Once underway though, the race was anything but exciting. A big crash on the backstretch where Michael Waltrip first unveiled his new roof hatch exit was about it for the excitement of the day.

Tony Stewart used the 2004 Daytona 500 to put into full-gear his apparent quest to join Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip as multi-time NASCAR champions who could win any and everything at Daytona, but for years, be unable to claim a Daytona 500 trophy for themselves.

Dale Earnhardt Jr led the first 29 laps, and the last 20. In between though, Stewart led 98 of 151 laps, and during that stretch, the nine laps led by Jimmie Johnson from laps 44-52 were the most consecutive laps led by anyone not in an orange chevrolet.

The race itself saw the final caution flag fly on lap 72 with the previously mentioned massive pile-up on the back stretch being the final wreck of the day. That, coupled with a rules package that much major emphasis on tire wear, resulted in the field becoming exceptionally spread out.

In fact, for the first time in about ten years, there was no lead “pack” fighting it out for the win. It was just Earnhardt and Stewart. Earnhardt had followed Stewart for much of the mid to late portion of the race, but with twenty to go, and with Stewart’s tires fading, Earnhardt seized the lead and never let it go. In fact, Stewart hardly even was able to put up much of a fight, doing all he could just to keep Earnhardt’s Budweiser chevrolet within reach.

For Earnhardt, winning the Daytona 500 obviously carried special meaning, and perhaps due to that and the popularity of his  victory, this could be ranked a little higher. But those things don’t make up for the fact that the race itself really stunk.

26. 1995 Daytona 500

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Not since the Elliotts in the 80s had anyone been as dominant at Talladega and Daytona as Sterling Marlin and his Kodak Chevrolet were during the mid 90s. If there was a restrictor plate race to be run, you could bet your bottom dollar that Marlin and his bunch were going to be among the favorites. The Runt Pittman built engines in Marlin’s cars even sounded different, in addition to clearly just being better than anything else on the track.

The year before, Marlin had won his first career race, in the 1994 Daytona 500, marking the 2nd time (Ernie Irvan, 1991) in four years that the Morgan-McClure Racing team had won the Daytona 500. Marlin didn’t visit victory lane again that season, and finished only 14th in the final points standings. He did however finish in the top ten of both Talladega races and also led six laps in the July race at Daytona.

In 1995 however Marlin and the team would take steps to becoming a more complete team, and a true championship contender. And it started with the Daytona 500.

Marlin’s victory in the 1995 Daytona 500 was the most thorough victory by anyone in the Daytona 500 since Bill Elliott’s wins in 1985 and 1987. A late caution and mini-charge after getting on four fresh tires by Dale Earnhardt were the only things keeping things interesting, and even then, you had to force yourself to believe Earnhardt had any real shot at getting by Marlin.

I remember running across Bill Elliott at an autograph signing a few days after the race, and I asked Elliott if he hadn’t had a flat tire that cost him a lap if he’d had anything for Earnhardt and Marlin. His reply, “We coulda beat Earnhardt, but I don’t know about Marlin”. In other words, the four car was in a whole ‘nother zip code.

Marlin though wasn’t entirely alone in that zip code however. A flat tire didn’t only claim Bill Elliott, it also eliminated the only car that looked like it could run with Marlin; Jeff Gordon. Gordon suffered a flat tire, and on the pit stop to change tires also had the car slightly roll off the jack curling back the left front fender behind the wheel. Those two things combined were enough to eliminate Gordon from contention as he, like Elliott, was never able to make up the lap he’d lost while dealing with his tire issues. Gordon was however, the only guy not named Marlin to lead more than 23 laps. In fact, Gordon led 61 of the races first 98 laps.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Gordon chasing Marlin at the finish, and we were denied a battle between the two best cars on the track, as with Gordon and Marlin leading a combined 166 of 200 laps, we were also denied a show worthy of watching at all.

There were only two green flag passes made for the lead all race long, both of them coming when Dale Earnhardt was passed by Sterling Marlin. Marlin passed him on lap three, and then passed him for good on lap 181. In between, every lead change came during a caution period. Thrilling right?

Earnhardt’s continued quest to finally snare a Daytona 500 was at this point, reason alone to watch any Daytona 500, and the fact that he made something resembling a charge at Marlin late in the going is pretty much all that keeps this from ranking as perhaps the worst Daytona 500 of the last thirty years.

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Atlanta’s 10 Most Heartbreaking Sports Moments # 10

With another knife delivered through the heart of Atlanta sports fans last Saturday night, I thought it time to examine the ten most heartbreaking sports moments endured by Atlanta sports fans. So, here we are with number ten.

1992 Hooters 500– Local favorite Bill Elliott entered the final race of the 1992 season at his home track of Atlanta International Raceway a mere 40 points out of the points lead, trailing Davey Allison. Just ten points ahead of Elliott was underdog supreme Alan Kulwicki, who despite his positioning seemed over matched in this championship battle with two stars like Elliott and Allison.

Elliott, the 1988 champion, was one of NASCAR’s biggest stars during the 80s and the early 90s. At a time when he professional sports scene in Atlanta was more of a joke than a Jerry Seinfeld one liner, Elliott was the only thing going for Georgia sports. And it was a torch he carried well.

The local folks were hoping to see a repeat of 1988 when Elliott came to his home track and left his sports champion. To do so, Elliott had some ground to make up, but for a driver that already had four victories on his home track, and had finished no worse than 3rd in his previous three starts, it seemed doable.

Elliott though should never have been in a situation where he found himself trailing. He had a  154 point lead with six races to go in the season before proceeding to fish 26th or worse in four of the next five races, including a 31st at Phoenix just a week before the season finale at Atlanta.

A seemingly safe, and insurmountable lead had dissipated and what seemed to be a second championship for one of Georgia’s favorite sons had become a long shot.

On Sunday, points leader Davey Allison was swept up in an accident with about 75 laps remaining in the race. At the time, Allison was in a position to wrap up the championship. But a bout with Ernie Irvan and the retaining walls on Atlanta International Raceway’s put a halt to Allison’s title dreams.

Davey Allison tangles with Ernie Irvan, ending his championship run

This turned things into a two man show, between Elliott and Kulwicki. The two had established themselves as not only the two remaining title contenders, but also as easily the two best cars on the racetrack.

The two battled lap after lap, embarking on a furious struggle to lead the most laps and capture the bonus points that would come with it. Late in the race, crew chief Paul Andrews kept Kulwicki out one extra lap, to lead just enough to ensure he would lead the most laps.

Elliott would go on to win the race, and in doing so, gain 5 points on Kulwicki, meaning if he only could have wrapped up the most laps led, Elliott would gain 5 more, and would tie Kulwicki in the standings. On the merits of Elliott’s five victories to Kulwicki’s two, the championship would’ve been his.

But alas, this was not the case. The laps led totals? Kulwicki 103. Elliott 102.

Alan Kulwicki prepares for his famous Polish Victory Lap after securing a surprising championship by the smallest of margins

One lap, at times across the line the two were wheel to wheel, so in retrospect, one foot, was the difference in Elliott winning his second title and coming up the bridesmaid for the third time in his career.

Unfortunately for all three championship combatants, neither would ever again contend for a title. Elliott, while he would win more races in his career, never again found a consistent enough of season to compete again for a championship. Kulwicki and Allison were of course tragically killed the next year in separate aviation accidents.

For Elliott though, it was the championship that got away, twice.

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Missing Davey Allison

So it’s late at night, I’m pulling out old NASCAR race tapes. First was the 1992 Pepsi 400. For those that don’t know, it was Richard Petty’s last race at Daytona, and he led the first five laps.

But I also pulled out my tape of the 1993 Diehard 500, at Talladega. For those that don’t know, it’s the race two weeks after Davey Allison died.

Davey was the youngest member of the famed Alabama Gang, he was the last patriarch, he was the one to carry the Allison name on.

And dammit, he was going to carry it on. The man could drive. And he could drive well. Unfortunately, we never saw Davey reach his full potential, nobody did.

While flying home to watch a family friend run some test laps at Talladega, a family friend of the beloved Alabama Gang (a group of NASCAR drivers from Alabama who experienced great success in NASCAR), Davey Allison failed to properly land his helicopter in the Talladega infield.

The result was tragic.

Davey didn’t survive the injuries suffered in that crash. The sport of NASCAR was robbed of one of its greatest talents. A young star in the making never got to make his full mark.

The Allison story is one of many in NASCAR lore, of a young talent taken way too soon. It’s also a story sports fans need not forget. For if Davey hadn’t been taken so young, where would Jeff Gordon be? Which means where would Jimmie Johnson be?

Davey Allison was a great talent. A talent we never got to see reach its full potential. Let’s not forget that.

I don’t care who ever drives the 28 car again, or drives a Texaco Havoline car, the 28 car will be, and will always be, Davey’s.

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