Atlanta has had plenty of great Sprint Cup moments, but which one tops the list?
High speed and higher drama have characterized the super-fast Atlanta Motor Speedway throughout its headline-making history. Its 1.54-mile high-banks are where NASCAR bid farewell to The King and welcomed his crown prince. It’s where the sport began healing after the loss of a legend and a place that has crowed champions and distinguished careers.
And for all of Atlanta Motor Speedway’s contributions to NASCAR’s past, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races under the lights in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 the track will continue a tradition of championship impact -- its well-earned primetime contribution will help determine NASCAR’s postseason field with only two races remaining to set the 12-drive Chase lineup.
Here’s a look at the top 10 moments in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s storied history:
10. After back-flipping his way into NASCAR fans’ hearts with his down-home charm and hard-charging talent, Carl Edwards finally got his first win in the sport’s big leagues in 2005. He edged Jimmie Johnson at the line to score his first career Sprint Cup win and made history by becoming the first driver to ever sweep Nationwide and Cup series races at the track.
9. Looking back, perhaps the 1978 Dixie 500 established a tradition of dramatic -- and even surprise -- endings. The crowd sitting in the grandstands that day thought they saw Richard Petty nip Dave Marcis at the finish line, only to hear the public address announcer call Donnie Allison the winner. After a hastily called post-race review -- witnessed by NASCAR’s current chairman and CEO Brian France, then only 16-years-old -- Allison was officially declared the winner. He had been down laps early in the day but raced back onto the lead lap to earn the trophy.
8. Bill Elliott -- “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” -- as he was endearingly known, is understandably forever associated with his hometown track. Twice -- in 1985 and 1992 -- he swept the season’s two races there, a feat only matched three times earlier and not for more than a decade later when Edwards (2005) and Jimmie Johnson (2007) pulled it off. Elliott is the only driver to sweep twice.
7. In 2009 Atlanta Motor Speedway held its first race under the lights -- a primetime win by Kasey Kahne -- that helped establish him among the sport’s best and turned the event into a Labor Day tradition.
6. While NASCAR has a long-established record of sibling competition, the 1996 Atlanta season-ender took brotherly bonds to new levels. Bobby Labonte won the race from the Coors Light Pole and celebrated in Victory Lane, joined by his older brother Terry who clinched his second Cup championship that day.
5. For all the great days in the track’s storied history, the evening of July 6, 2005, will be remembered for a destructive F2 category tornado with winds estimated over 150 mph that damaged or destroyed much of the speedway’s facilities. The storm caused about $25 million in damages, but in true NASCAR form, repairs were made and spirits lifted in time to hold its October race weekend as scheduled.
4. Jeff Gordon has a lot of personal history with Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it became NASCAR history on 2011 when the four-time Sprint Cup champ won his 85th Cup race on the track where he debuted 19 years earlier. The victory moved him out of a tie with Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison and into sole possession of third place on the all-time wins list. Gordon has 87 wins now.
3. Atlanta Motor Speedway boasts two of NASCAR’s top-10 closest finishes, including Dale Earnhardt’s .010-second photo-finish win over Bobby Labonte in 2000. It was Earnhardt’s 75th win and he visited Victory Lane only one more time (Talladega later that season) before a fatal accident in the next year’s Daytona 500.
2. It would be hard to find a more emotional race outcome than the 2001 March race at Atlanta. Kevin Harvick earned his first-ever Cup win only three weeks after replacing the late seven-time champ Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing. Harvick held off Jeff Gordon by a blink-of-an-eye .006-seconds in one of the most dramatic outcomes the sport has ever witnessed.
1. The 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta will be remembered as the bridge between NASCAR eras, a single day of drama perhaps unequalled on track. It was seven-time champion Richard Petty’s final race and soon-to-be four-time champ Jeff Gordon’s first race. The sport’s talented and popular Davey Allison entered the race a favorite to claim the first of what many expected would be multiple titles, but he crashed out. Bill Elliott -- also in contention for the championship -- completed the season sweep there but lost out on the season trophy by a mere 10 points to Alan Kulwicki, the first owner/driver to win in the modern era.