Speed, Guts, and Glory

100 Unforgettable Moments in NASCAR History


By Joe Garner

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New York Times bestselling author Joe Garner brings the sights, sounds, and thrills of NASCAR to vivid life in this authoritative and exciting book.

Stockcar racing is fast becoming America’s most popular spectator sport, and now bestselling author and broadcasting veteran Joe Garner captures the most important moments in NASCAR history, including:
  • Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s triumphant Daytona 500 victory
  • King Richard Petty’s 200th victory, with Ronald Reagan in attendance as the first president to attend a NASCAR event
  • Jeff Gordon’s amazing dream season
  • The closest finish in NASCAR history—a mere .002 of a second!
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona victory—on the one-year anniversary of his father’s death on the same speedway.


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Chapter One


The Closest Finishes

Neither driver backed off, neither driver flinched. And for the first time in a long while, a race was decided by a driver's nerve, not an over-engineered car.

Busch and Craven's 2003 Darlington Duel

Ricky Craven doesn't look much like a race car driver, doesn't talk like one—probably a result of growing up in Newburgh, Maine. He has the credentials, though; you don't land a Nextel Cup ride without winning at every level. But in a sport that prides itself on fan accessibility to its stars, it's easy to see how someone who comes off rather quiet and unassuming can get buried in the residual glow from current favorites like Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Tony Stewart.

(Overleaf): This image retrieved from the NASCAR scoring camera positioned at the start/finish line shows how Ricky Craven (32) beats Kurt Busch by .002 seconds to win the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway, Sunday, March 16, 2003 in Darlington, S.C.(Below): Ricky Craven speeds around the track in the #32 Pontiac.

But there was a moment on the afternoon of March 16, 2003—a very, very brief moment—that changed everything for Ricky Craven.

Officially, the length of time it took to catapult Craven from a someone-else-in-the-field to someone in the NASCAR record book was 0.002 seconds, about how long it takes for a light bulb to glow after you flip the switch. Snap your fingers or blink your eyes; each action lasts about two thousandths of a second.

That magic number—0.002—is the margin of Ricky Craven's victory over Kurt Busch in what was and most likely will always be remembered as the most exciting finish in NASCAR racing.

Craven passes Kurt Busch, driver of the #97 Rubbermaid Ford, on the final lap before becoming the eventual winner of the NASCAR Carolina Dodge Dealers 400.

It was that close, that exciting, and that amazing.

The fifth race of the season found the drivers in Darlington for the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400. The historic 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval was NASCAR's first superspeedway, and since the inaugural 1950 race it has been considered one of the most treacherous tracks in the sport. With mismatched turns at either end, each with a different degree of banking, plus a concrete retaining wall that seems inexplicably to inch just far enough out to carve a jagged abrasion along the right side of a race car, pretty much from front fender to rear quarter panel, known with exasperated affection as the "Darlington Stripe," it has truly earned its nickname: The Track Too Tough to Tame.

The weekend didn't begin well for Kurt Busch, the twenty-four-year-old driver feeling his way into a third Winston Cup season. He was forced to start in the last row after changing engines following Saturday practice. Busch was also racing on parts and pieces borrowed from his Roush Racing teammates. "I had Mark Martin's springs, Jeff Burton's sway bar, and Matt Kenseth's shocks." But the combination clicked; after the green flag fell the number 97 Rubbermaid Ford was able to juke its way forward through the slower traffic.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin dominated, combining to lead 162 of the 293 laps, but their chances for victory ended with lug-nut mishaps on pit road. Jeff Gordon moved to the front and led for 78 laps but was forced to retire after his car caromed off Elliott Sadler's and hit the second-turn wall. Busch, with the power steering on his car going-going-gone, was the benefactor of the accident, slipping into a lead that he would hold for the next twenty-one laps.

After climbing out of his battered machine and collecting himself, Busch headed for Victory Lane to congratulate the winner… "That was the coolest finish that I've ever seen and I'm glad that I was a part of it."

At the same time, Ricky Craven had almost completed his charge to the front from the thirty-first starting spot, and with only twenty-two laps remaining his orange-and-white Tide Pontiac was stalking the back bumper of Busch's Taurus. Craven gained ground in each of the next twenty laps, pulling even on two occasions.

With two laps remaining Craven tried to take the lead by going low in Turn 1, but on his worn tires slid into Busch, who scraped the wall. Craven then skated up the track in front of Busch. As both drivers regained control Busch tapped Craven on the rear bumper, went low, and retook the lead. "All of a sudden I found him in front," Craven said. "Now how the hell did that happen?"

Craven celebrates after his big win.

Busch tried to protect his position; Craven muscled forward and banged door-to-door with Busch down the homestretch. Neither driver backed off, neither driver flinched. And for the first time in a long while, a race was decided by a driver's nerve, not an over-engineered car.

The electronic timing system caught it perfectly: Craven by an inch. Maybe two. "I don't know how I saved it, I don't know how he saved it," Craven said after winning for the second time in his career. The right side of his Pontiac was mashed flat; the left side of Busch's Ford was hammered beyond recognition. It was a finish for the ages, and one that will never be forgotten by 55,000 breathless fans, an astonished national television audience, and especially by two courageous NASCAR drivers.

After climbing out of his battered machine and collecting himself, Busch headed for Victory Lane to congratulate the winner. "I can't wait to see him, I'll certainly slap him a high-five and we'll share a couple beers later on," said Busch. "That was the coolest finish that I've ever seen and I'm glad that I was a part of it."

An astonished Craven also shared that remarkable sentiment. "I'll be sixty-five years old, sitting on the porch with my wife up on Moosehead Lake," he said, "and I'll tell this story a hundred thousand times."

2001 Atlanta: "This One's for Dale"

There was no way for Kevin Harvick to fly under the radar with this.

Think of an icon, the heart and soul of one of America's most popular sports. Then imagine something bigger, and double it. At that point you're just beginning to get close to Dale Earnhardt's impact on and importance to NASCAR and the NASCAR family.

So when the unthinkable happened—when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500—it set in motion an unlikely series of events that would impact everyone connected with the sport. No one more than a twenty-five-year-old from Bakersfield, California.

A simple press release from Richard Childress Racing during the week following that fateful Daytona 500 said it all: "NASCAR Busch Series driver Kevin Harvick will move up to the Winston Cup Series."

Harvick was an intense and at the same time affable up-and-comer at RCR who hoped to build on the credentials he'd earned the previous season, when he won Busch Series Rookie of the Year honors. The 2001 plan was for him to run another full Busch season, but in the days following Earnhardt's death, Childress recalled, "Harvick came to me and said he'd do whatever he could to help the race team." At that moment, it meant getting behind the wheel of the most famous car in motor sports.

Out of respect for Earnhardt, and in hopes of making Harvick's challenge a little less stressful, the team changed the black number 3 to a white number 29 before Harvick's first race. He finished a very respectable fourteenth at Rockingham, and a week later Harvick came home an astounding eighth in Las Vegas.

But the best was yet to come.

NASCAR's traveling show rolled into Atlanta for the fourth race of the season, and Harvick posted the best qualifying effort of his brief Cup career: he would start fifth in the Cracker Barrel 500. The Goodwrench Chevy stayed in or near the top ten for the first 300 laps and then, to the surprise of everyone—or maybe to the surprise of no one—began to move even closer to the front of the pack. "There was somebody in the passenger seat making the car go a lot better than I was," Harvick explained later. "I felt somebody tapping me on the shoulder with about ten laps to go and saying, 'You'd better get going if you want to win this race.'"

As the NASCAR community held its collective breath, Harvick pulled off the only thing that could really begin the healing process: an Earnhardt-style three-wide pass for the lead, followed by an electrifying fender-to-fender homestretch sprint with Jeff Gordon, and crowned with a gratifying victory by just 0.006 seconds.

Kevin Harvick in the #29 Monte Carlo celebrates by doing donuts after winning the Winston Cup Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motorspeedway in Hampton, Georgia.

"This one's for Dale," said the teary-eyed rookie. "Someone was watching over us today."

1993 Talladega: Earnhardt and Irvan

The 1993 NASCAR Winston Cup season had not, to put it mildly, gotten off to a great start.

Alan Kulwicki, the previous year's series champion who captured the hearts and imaginations of the NASCAR family with an impossibly low-budget run to the title, was killed in a plane crash during the sixth week of the season on his way to the spring race at Bristol International Speedway. Three months after that Davey Allison died when the helicopter he was piloting slammed into the infield at Talladega.

Just twelve days later, under the nearly crippling 100-degree September heat at that same Alabama track, the drivers, crews, and fans assembled to say a final goodbye to Allison and to run another race, one ironically named the DieHard 500.

Dale Earnhardt had been on fire over the previous two months of the '93 season: four victories in seven races. Up-and-coming new kid on the block Ernie Irvan, who made his Cup debut six years earlier in a Monte Carlo sponsored by, believe it or not, Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet, convincingly won the Talladega race in May and was expected to challenge his former benefactor.

In a race that would be described in later newspaper reports as "terrifying" and "wildly violent," the first of five caution flags flew when Robby Gordon, in the Robert Yates Racing Thunderbird formerly driven by Davey Allison, spun and crashed on Lap 56. The day's worst incident involved Stanley Smith, a journeyman driver from Chelsea, Alabama. He was sandwiched in a four-car collision on the 70th lap and helicoptered to the same medical center in Birmingham where Allison had died of head injuries two weeks earlier.

It came as a surprise to no one that when the white flag waved after 187 laps there were five cars in contention and the outcome of the race was still very much up for grabs. Earnhardt was in front of Kyle Petty by a car length, with Irvan, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin bunched close behind in a 185 mph knot. After the first turn Petty dove to the bottom groove into the lead. Then exiting Turn 2 Irvan drove low and went to the front past Earnhardt and Petty. In the third and final curve, Earnhardt caught Irvan and they ran side by side until Earnhardt nosed ahead to win by six inches.

"It was an all-day game," said Earnhardt, comparing the race to a high-speed chess match. "We made the last move and beat 'em."

1959 Daytona 500: The First Photo Finish

I believe stock-car racing can become a nationally recognized sport by having a national points standing which will embrace the majority of large stock-car events. We do not know how big it can be if it's handled properly.

—NASCAR founder Bill France, 1947

As NASCAR's traveling show zigzagged in its infancy across the Southeast on mainly quarter-and half-mile dirt tracks, Bill France envisioned a superspeedway that would be the centerpiece of his developing NASCAR series. Construction crews broke ground at Daytona in 1957—its high-banked 2.5 miles nearly twice the size of Darlington, the biggest existing track on the circuit—and two years later it was ready for the green flag to fall.

The inaugural Daytona 500 took place on February 22, 1959, and the capacity crowd of 41,000 fans along with the fifty-nine drivers were suitably awed by the sheer magnitude of the new track. "I came through the tunnel and there were only two buildings," said Richard Petty, recalling his first experience at the speedway. "There was one road in and one road out. For a twenty-one-year-old kid who'd never seen anything like it, it seemed like it was ten miles to the other corner. It was more awesome than you'd believe." (The Man Who Would Be King finished fifty-seventh after being forced out of the race with mechanical problems after only eight laps.)

His father, Lee, was one of the acknowledged stars of the fledgling race series, having won the championship in 1954 and again four years later. And when he showed up with a brand-new car to race—a '59 Oldsmobile Super 88—all eyes were on him. But someone forgot to mention it to Johnny Beauchamp, a journeyman who would run just twenty-three races during his five seasons at NASCAR's top level.

The two had broken away from the rest of the field and swapped the lead over the final 30 laps. Petty took over on Lap 197 and led until the white flag, when Beauchamp moved his '59 Thunderbird even with Petty. Along with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly, it was a three-wide, side-by-side-by-side finish.

Johnny Beauchamp (73), driving a 1959 Thunderbird, and Lee Petty (42), driving an Oldsmobile, were neck and neck on the last lap of the 500-mile late stock car and convertible race over the Daytona International Speedway here February 22, 1959, but Petty nosed out Beauchamp at the finish line. The average speed for the race was 135.521 miles per hour.

Both drivers claimed victory. Officials were inclined to think, but weren't a hundred percent positive, that Beauchamp had won. Petty lodged a protest, and NASCAR president Bill France decided to delay declaring a winner until photographs and newsreels of the finish could be examined.

Three days of news-making controversy later, Lee Petty was the victor in the inaugural Daytona 500, and was awarded a trophy plus the winner's check in the amount of $19,050.

1984 Talladega: Cale Yarborough Barely Captures Eightieth Victory

Cale Yarborough was named by a panel of experts as one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers and he's fifth (behind Petty, Pearson, Allison, and Waltrip) on the all-time victories list. He's also a member of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. But when asked, the intense driver from Timmonsville, South Carolina, doesn't hesitate to single out the 1984 Winston 500.

"It was the wildest race I have ever been in."

High-speed madness was part of the equation even before the cars began powering around the 2.66-mile, 33-degree-banked Talladega tri-oval, which was known then as Alabama International Motor Speedway. In the pre-restrictor-plate days of unlimited fire-breathing NASCAR horsepower, a record eight drivers qualified at more than 200 mph—the fastest stock car field in history—with Yarborough on the pole in a then-record of 202.692 mph.

And when the race began, it seemed even faster.

The tremendously competitive contest went thirty-nine flat-out, foot-on-the-floor, white-knuckles-on-the-steering-wheel laps before the caution flag was waved for debris on the track. At that point the field was averaging a blazing 193.161 mph. The pace did eventually slow due to the four yellow flags (another for debris, and when Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt smacked the wall a few laps apart, both coincidentally in the fourth turn). But the competitive nature of the race never waned. There were a record seventy-five lead changes among thirteen drivers, including Yarborough and co-legends Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, David Pearson, and Benny Parsons.

Resting against his Hardee's-sponsored Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS, Cale Yarborough proudly holds up his first place trophy for the 1984 Winston 500. It was Yarborough's 80th victory, a landmark he captured at what was then known as the Alabama International Motor Speedway.

Cale's car—a Hardee's-sponsored Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS prepared by Waddell Wilson, the mechanical mastermind and acknowledged guru of high-speed engine wizardry—was certainly one of the stronger cars, if not the class of the field. However, there was one slight problem: his orange-and-white hot rod was running dangerously low on gas. Yarborough conserved his dwindling fuel by tucking in behind race leader Harry Gant on the 175th of 188 laps. But on the final circuit Yarborough combined horsepower, high-speed aerodynamics, and sheer guts to drive past Gant's Buick on the long backstretch for the seventy-fifth and final lead change. But even then he wasn't in the clear for the win.

"I heard my engine sputter and begin to die on the last turn. I had to pump it to get it to go again," said Yarborough. After reviving the engine, the three-time Cup champion stayed just ahead of Gant and went on to capture the eightieth victory of his NASCAR career. Following Gant, the next seven cars crossed the finish line just 0.33 of a second apart.

In the pre-restrictor plate days of unlimited fire-breathing NASCAR horsepower, a record eight drivers qualified at more than 200 mph—the fastest stock car field in history—with Yarborough on the pole in a then-record of 202.692 mph.

1991 Michigan: Jarrett and Allison in a Ford Shootout

Everywhere Dale Jarrett went, he was asked the same old question: When are you going to win? His stretch of 128 Cup races—almost four full seasons—without seeing the checkered flag really was a long time. And each week the pressure seemed to grow. Such is the curse of following a successful father—two-time series champion Ned Jarrett—into the family business.

Davey Allison, to some degree, also knew that same "son of" pressure. He was a rising star on the Cup circuit, a high-flying winner of eleven races in his young, full-of-promise career. But he also had championship shoes to fill: his father, Bobby Allison, was the 1983 series king, and was in fact still an active driver. So naturally, the inevitable father-son comparisons happened pretty much every week, with the late-summer contest on the Michigan International Speedway's two-mile D-shaped oval the next opportunity for evaluation and scrutiny.

But at the end of the 200-lap shootout the crowd was on its feet, 90,000 strong, cheering in unison for the dramatic duel of second-generation drivers they had just witnessed.

The younger Allison seemed unbeatable that day. He had dominated the Michigan race in June and appeared to be on his way to repeating the same formula. The 61 laps he led were the most by any driver. But Jarrett kept the Citgo Ford in contention on the track, and his crew kept the Thunderbird close during every pit stop.

Allison was in control with a comfortable lead over Mark Martin and Harry Gant, with Jarrett a car length behind in fourth, when the caution flag flew on Lap 187 for debris on the track. The leaders all needed a splash of fuel to make it to the finish, and everyone also got new tires. Everyone except Jarrett, who pulled out at the head of the pack.

The green flag waved on Lap 192 and the final nine laps saw Allison, who came out of the pits in fourth, move up to challenge his fellow Thunderbird driver. On Lap 199, Allison got up alongside Jarrett and put the nose of his car ahead at the line to lead the penultimate lap. But Jarrett did not back off and they remained side by side over the last circuit. In the final 200 yards, Jarrett pulled even and then got the nose of his car out front in the last split second of the race.

After 400 miles, Jarrett had beaten Davey Allison by a scant eight inches in a fender-banging, door-rubbing, nail-biting Ford shootout. It was the closest finish in the history of the twenty-three-year-old Michigan track and prompted Jarrett to say after the race, "I thought it was maybe even a little closer than that."

2004 Texas: Sadler and Kahne's Wheel-to-Wheel Finish

The race at Texas Motor Speedway on April 4, 2004, was characterized by many in the media and in the grandstands as not particularly exciting, downright boring according to some accounts. The 1.5-mile quad oval is one of the so-called cookie-cutter tracks on the NASCAR circuit, very similar to Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. The racing is always fast, but sometimes the banked asphalt resembles a parade route instead of a racetrack.

But take another look at that race date. The 04-04-04 rolled up like winning numbers on the NASCAR Cup slot machine, and the 200,000-plus fans in attendance hit the jackpot with a dazzling finish.

Bobby Labonte, the 2000 series champion, led the field to the green flag from his pole position, but was passed before the end of the first lap by Bill Elliott. Following a Lap 18 caution for the minor skirmish between Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon, the field settled down and almost appeared to be circling the track in a choreographed formation, with the exception of the bright red number 9 Dodge of Kasey Kahne.

The rookie sensation from Enumclaw, Washington, started the race in third but got shuffled back during the first pit stop. From there, it was a not-so-slow march through the field to take the lead on Lap 49 from fellow Dodge driver Sterling Marlin. Kahne's car was a rocket and he dominated the Samsung/Radio Shack 500, leading six times for 148 laps. Not that any of this was a great surprise; he had already notched two very close second-place finishes in the season's first six races.

But there is one very important ingredient that usually factors into who wins a race and who doesn't: luck. Elliott Sadler had it and Kasey Kahne didn't. And that turned out to be the story.

Kahne, in the lead and in command, made what was supposed to be a routine green-flag pit stop. But Ward Burton's brush with the wall brought out the yellow flag on Lap 267 and pinned Kahne a lap down. Sadler, on the other hand, was in a small group that had not yet pitted. He came out in second place behind Jeff Gordon.

Sadler's good fortune continued when Gordon's momentary electrical glitch allowed the M&M's Taurus to slip by into the lead. Kahne's furious chase put him on Sadler's bumper, and the two roared out of the final turn almost wheel to wheel. But at the finish line it was Sadler, winning by a scant 0.028 of a second.

"If Kasey had two hundred more feet, he would have gotten me," Sadler conceded after the race.

Elliot Sadler (38) just beats Kasey Kahne (9) to the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Samsung/Radio Shack 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, on Sunday, April 4, 2004.

1992 Points Race: Kulwicki Takes the Cup on Fumes

There was a time when "college degree in mechanical engineering" and "NASCAR driver" were rarely if ever found in the same sentence. But University of Wisconsin graduate Alan Kulwicki always had his own way of getting things done.

After establishing his racing credentials in the Midwest-based American Speed Association, Kulwicki packed his belongings into his truck and made the move to North Carolina in 1986. There he set up shop for his shot at the big time, not in the traditional manner of driving someone else's car but by creating a team of his own. Alan Kulwicki Racing operated on a shoestring budget: He used engineering know-how and gritty determination to keep his team inching forward. Following the first win three years later, Kulwicki took NASCAR celebrations in an entirely new direction with his wrong-way-around-the-track "Polish victory lap."

By the 1992 season Kulwicki's team was running with the leaders on a weekly basis. In fact, with five races remaining on the schedule he was one of five drivers who still had a mathematical chance to catch points leader Bill Elliott and win the Cup championship. Of course, being underfunded and 191 points behind a veteran driver who had won the championship in 1988, it was decidedly a long shot.

Over the next three races Elliott, his main challenger Davey Allison, and Kulwicki chased points and each other around the tracks at North Wilkesboro, Charlotte, and Rockingham, but Elliott still held comfortable leads over both his rivals. A second championship seemed within Elliott's grasp if everything followed form in the season's penultimate race a week later in Phoenix.

But as so often it goes in sports, it turned out to be a big if. The breaks instead went against Elliott: a cracked cylinder head took him out early. Allison won and Kulwicki raced to a fourth-place finish. As the teams headed to Atlanta for the final race the standings had shifted dramatically: Allison led Kulwicki by 30, with Elliott in third just 10 points back.

Alan Kulwicki holds up the Winston Cup trophy at Atlanta Raceway after winning the 1992 Championship.

As the November race progressed, Davey was running well and appeared to be in control of his destiny; the sixth-place finish he needed to clinch the Cup title was well within his reach. But on Lap 256 Ernie Irvan blew a tire and took Allison out of the race and the championship chase. Kulwicki then made his chancy strategic move: he risked running out of gas by staying on the track when Elliott pitted for fuel; but by remaining out and leading one more lap than Elliott, Kulwicki earned five bonus points by leading the most laps in the contest. His "Underbird"—a Thunder-bird with the T and the H removed as a nod to their lack of funding—crossed the finish line in second, just behind Elliott. Kulwicki's 10-point cushion won him the 1992 NASCAR Cup Series championship—and the million dollars—by one of the narrowest margins in NASCAR history.

1992 Winston: Davey Allison Spins Across the Finish Line

"I remember the whole race Saturday night till I crossed the finish line, then the lights went out."


On Sale
Dec 14, 2008
Page Count
256 pages

Joe Garner

About the Author

Joe Garner lives in Los Angeles, California.

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