NASCAR's Greatest Moments - Part 3
1990 - Present Day

 by Adam Sewell
July 26, 2001

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The decade of the 90's saw the sport of stock car racing undergo an enormous boom in popularity. The 90's also saw some exciting races, the addition of new tracks, and some changes to some of the historic tracks, such as adding lights to Charlotte and Daytona. The level of competition increased, and it also saw some of the sports most popular stars pass the lead on to the young guns. It is pretty safe to say that the 90's were one of the most important and influential decades in NASCAR history. From 1990 to 2001, NASCAR went from a southern regional sport to a national sport that now rivals Major League Baseball and the National Football League in popularity. Here's some of the more exciting moments over the past decade:

1991 Champion Spark Plug 400 - The Rising 'Star' Battles A Future Star

The 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan Speedway was the sight of one of the most memorable finishes of the 1990's. Coming to take the checkered flag, Davey Allison in the #28 Texaco car battled with Dale Jarrett's #21 Citgo Ford. As they exited turn 4 for the final time, the two bumped each other on numerous occasions as they were heading for the line. The photo finish revealed that Dale Jarrett had scored his first career win by inches, with his excited father Ned broadcasting the victory from the booth. 

1992 Season - One Lap Decides It All, And The King Steps Down

In 1991, Richard Petty announced that 1992 would be his final season as a driver. He titled his 1992 campaign the Fan Appreciation Tour. As the season reached the halfway mark at Daytona, President George Bush attended the race and watched Petty take the green flag from the outside pole and lead several laps. The season went on and it was becoming clear that there was going to be a tight race for the championship. The final race at Atlanta came, and the favorites to win the championship were Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, and Alan Kulwicki. During the race, Richard Petty was collected in a multi-car accident and his car caught fire. Thankfully, he was not injured, and his crew repaired his car for Richard to make one final farewell lap after the conclusion of the race. The race went on with Elliott and Kulwicki fighting for the lead most of the day. Allison was running right where he needed to be to clench the championship, but he was taken out of the race when he was hit by Ernie Irvan's spinning car off turn 4. The championship came down to strategy on the final pit stop. Kulwikcki's team stretched their fuel mileage, allowing him to stay on the track longer. As a result, he led one more lap than Elliott did and clinched the bonus points for leading the most laps. Bill Elliott won the race, but missed the championship by one lap. On a more humorous note, Alan Kulwicki combed his hair before he climbed out of the car to accept the championship trophy, then later that year at the awards banquet in New York, Bill Elliott presented Alan with a gold comb. 

1994 Season - A New Tradition Is Born And The Fans Are Dealt A Pair Of Sevens 

For decades, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was home to only one race, the Indianapolis 500. But in 1994, a new tradition was created. For the first time, a series other than the Indy cars were going to run a race at the Brickyard. The NASCAR Winston Cup Series would compete in the Brickyard 400. Rick Mast sat on the pole and Jeff Gordon won the event after leader Ernie Irvan cut a right front tire. Though Jeff Gordon won that event, the driver that dominated the season was Dale Earnhardt. When he won the fall race at Rockingham, he clinched the season championship with two races remaining. This tied Earnhardt with Richard Petty for most championships with seven a piece. 

1997 Miller 400 - The Comeback Is Complete 

In August of 1994, at Michigan Speedway, Ernie Irvan was piloting his #28 Texaco Ford in a practice session when a tire blew and sent his car into the turn 1 wall. The car came to rest on the backstretch. Irvan was extracted from the car and airlifted directly to the hospital. Irvan suffered serious injuries in the crash and his physicians gave him a 10% chance of survival. In 1995, after being absent from the Winston Cup series for over a year, Irvan made his return at North Wilkesboro. He qualified seventh, led several laps, and finished sixth. In 1996 at New Hampshire, Irvan scored his first victory since his return to racing. Still, the comeback wasn't complete. Ernie Irvan started the 1997 Miller 400 at Michigan Speedway in the twentieth position. Irvan, Mark Martin, and Bill Elliott had the dominant cars all day. As so many Michigan races do, this race came down to fuel mileage and pit strategy. Elliott and Irvan were leading when the final round of pit stops began. Both teams took two tires and fuel, but Irvan's crew completed the work quicker, giving Irvan the lead. He led the final laps on his way to victory at the track that almost ended his life just a few years earlier. 

1998 Daytona 500 - Victory Is Finally Achieved 

Every sport has them. One team or athlete that no matter how hard they try, or how close they come, they never seem to be able to reach glory. For NASCAR, that athlete was Dale Earnhardt and the Daytona 500. As Earnhardt once said, he's won the Daytona 499 lots of times, but he just never could complete the last mile. No other driver has more victories at Daytona International Speedway than Earnhardt. For a driver that has had everything happen to him at Daytona, from hitting a sea gull with his car, to accidents, to blowing a tire going into the final turn while leading, the Daytona 500 always seemed to be just out of his grasp. Finally, in 1998, he achieved victory in the most prestigious race in NASCAR. And what will always stick out in my mind, was the line of crew men, fans, and media that lined pit road to shake his hand on the way to victory lane. 

2000 Winston 500 - The Million Dollar Dash 

Most NASCAR fans know that restrictor plate racing means a 200mph traffic jam. The drivers will tell you that it is a high-speed chess match with very little room for error. Someone forgot to tell Dale Earnhardt about the difficult passing. With 6 laps remaining in the race, Earnhardt moved from 16th place to take the lead with two laps to go. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mike Skinner made contact coming out of the Talladega tri-oval and slowed the pack down, allowing Earnhardt, Sr., Kenny Wallace, and Joe Nemechek to pull away and finish 1-2-3. With the win, Earnhardt collected the Winston No Bull 5 $1 Million bonus. Earnhardt's late race performance is probably the most impressive come-from-behind victory since Bill Elliott came from nearly two laps down under green flag conditions to win the Winston 500 in 1985. Sadly, though, no one knew at the time that this was to be Dale Earnhardt's final victory. 

2001 Pepsi 400 Like Father, Like Son 

Every man looks up to their father, I know I do. And Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was no exception. After his father's death at Daytona in February, Earnhardt Jr. seemed to go in a slump. Many people thought coming back to Daytona without his father would harm him even more, but it turns out, that it was just the medicine he needed. The July 7th Pepsi 400 was NASCAR's first trip back to Daytona since that terrible day in February. But Earnhardt, Jr. dominated the race, just like his father used to do at the track, and won.

It was a great achievement, but several subsequent accusations tainted the victory. People made the absurd comment that the race was fixed. I personally think it is impossible to fix a race because there are too many unknowns. Did Earnhardt Jr. have a larger restrictor plate? Highly unlikely! A team member picks a random plate from a lock box that contains all of the plates. A NASCAR official then verifies that the plate is the proper size and installs it on the car. All of this is done out in the open, not in a garage stall, not in the inspection bay, but in broad daylight. I have personally watched the installation of restrictor plates at Talladega, and any fan in the grandstands, with a good pair of binoculars, can see the same thing I saw. The facts are that Earnhardt Jr. was the first car lined up for the final restart with four fresh tires. Reviewing the video of the race, Earnhardt made his passes in the corners, exactly where his four tires would give him an advantage over those with two. Second, the R.A.D. cars, an aerodynamic association between Richard Childress Racing, Andy Petree Racing, and Dale Earnhardt Inc., have won every race since the introduction of the aero package at Daytona and Talladega. Another fact that was often over looked, Michael Waltrip, Earnhardt's teammate restarted in the 14th position with 6 laps to go and finished second. Personally, Earnhardt's domination reminded me of the way that Sterling Marlin dominated the restrictor plate tracks in the #4 Kodak car during the mid 90s. 

This series of articles is dedicated to all of the fans. Of course, I know I might have missed some of the best moments, but there are just so many to choose from. What's your favorite NASCAR Moment?

The author can be contacted at dougb@autoracing1.com

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