HOMESTEAD, Florida — With crowded grandstands as the backdrop, Bob Jenkins welcomed viewers to ESPN’s broadcast of the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup finale, proclaiming it “perhaps the biggest race in NASCAR history, at least in the modern era.’’
Richard Petty would run his final Cup race. Six drivers — some from racing’s royalty — entered with at least a mathematical chance to win the championship. A future superstar was set to make his first series start.
For the first time since that memorable fall day in Atlanta, a season finale has the power to match the significance of that 1992 race. Today’s Cup finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC) features a four-man battle for the title and the departure of fan favorites, including the sport’s most popular driver.
“This is a lot of parallel to what ’92 was,’’ said Bill Elliott, who won the race that day in Atlanta but lost the championship by 10 points to Alan Kulwicki. “I still look back (to that race) as a big deal.’’
Petty said today’s race is “like a changing of the guard. You got so many different facets here.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 14-time and assuredly soon-to-be the 15-time most popular driver, will run his final Cup race.
“I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words,’’ Earnhardt said Friday. “Usually I’m pretty decent at it.’’
Danica Patrick, a pioneering driver who introduced many young girls to the sport, announced Friday in an emotional press conference that this will be her final full-time season as a driver. She plans to run only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year.
“I feel like this is where my life should be headed,’’ she said.
Former champion Matt Kenseth, is set to depart the sport after this season. Whether he’ll return is uncertain. He’s left that possibility open but has no ride for next year and concedes he might not race in Cup again.
Busch, Harvick and Keselowski each seek a second title and would join seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson as the only active multi-time champions. Truex, whose team has endured heartbreak and tragedy throughout the season, seeks his first series title.
“I know it’s a big mark,’’ Keselowski said of becoming a two-time series champ. “There’s only 15 drivers in the sport that have won multiple championships, and we’re 60‑some years into the sport now.
“So if you think about it, there’s only been 15 multiple champions, and two of them are ‑ or at least one of them’s active now, and (Gordon and Tony Stewart haven’t) had a chance to get in the Hall of Fame, but it’s pretty much a certainty that those drivers will be in the Hall of Fame. Multiple championship drivers always will be. And it’s a chance to really make myself a Hall of Fame driver. That’s not something that anyone takes for granted.’’
That 1992 Atlanta race featured eight Hall of Famers: Petty, Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin and that list will grow in the coming years with Gordon and likely Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.
“I think the sport has evolved very well,’’ Elliott said.
One can only imagine what they might say of Sunday’s race 25 years from now.