Atlanta speedway looks for the best in series' last race

Posted: Thursday, November 02, 2000

HAMPTON, Ga. -- When there's a genuine points race, Ed Clark's job as the president and general manager of Atlanta Motor Speedway is easy. In fact, his biggest problem is finding enough tickets to satisfy the demand.

But when there's a runaway lead in the title race, Clark's biggest problem is finding enough race fans to satisfy the speedway's 140,000-seat capacity.

''It's feast or famine,'' he said. ''That's what you face when you're the last race in the Winston Cup season. It's either all good, or it's a lot of work.''

This year's finale, the NAPA 500 on Nov. 19, will be a little of both. The championship is all but settled since Bobby Labonte has a 201-point lead heading into Sunday's Checker Auto Parts/DuraLube 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway. At the same time, there's interest in the race since it will mark the final start for driver Darrell Waltrip.

To put Labonte's lead into perspective, he can skip Sunday's race and still is guaranteed having the points lead heading into the final two events, including next week's race at Homestead, Fla.

Since the race will lack championship drama, Clark said his raceway would focus on Waltrip's retirement. In fact, he hopes to have all of the former Winston Cup champions on hand to honor Waltrip, himself a former three-time champion.

''The way we're going right now, we won't sell out, but we're going to come close,'' Clark said. ''If something stirs up, we might sell out. We won't be bad. The 1992 race was the earliest sellout we've ever had. We sold that race out in early July that year, but the stars all lined up that day. That's a day people will always remember in this sport's history. Our job is to make every race feel that way.''

The 1992 race at Atlanta was a grand finale indeed. Six drivers were mathematically alive to win the championship, but three Alan Kulwicki, Bill Elliott and Davey Allison were atop the standings and separated by a mere 40 points.

The race also marked the end of Richard Petty's driving career and the beginning of Jeff Gordon's journey on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

The race itself exceeded all the months of hype. Allison slipped from first to third in the point standings after wrecking midway in the event. Kulwicki and Elliott led most of the final 205 laps Kulwicki leading 103, Elliott leading 102. The extra lap led gave Kulwicki five bonus points for leading the most laps, and it allowed him to beat Elliott, who eventually won the race, by just 10 points. In 52 years, it remains the smallest margin of victory in NASCAR history.

Petty's last ride also had drama. He crashed early in the race, his familiar Petty blue and red Pontiac bursting into flames. His team, however, rebuilt the twisted car and put the winningest driver in NASCAR history back on the track for the final few laps. Richard Petty, The King, was behind the wheel when the checkered flag waved on his storied career, not standing in the garage area.

It would be hard for Clark to duplicate that afternoon. But it won't stop him from trying.

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