NBC Files

25 Years Ago NASCAR lost Alan Kulwicki – a driver doing things ‘His Way’

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In a car named Sirloin because it is one of the toughest cuts of beef, Alan Kulwicki won the 1986 Rookie of the Year honor in what was then known as the Winston Cup series. Six seasons later, he beat NASCAR’s elite to capture the 1992 title.

It was one of NASCAR’s most dramatic moments in a history filled with them. From near obscurity to the pinnacle of stock car racing, fiercely independent Kulwicki did it his way as an owner/driver in a sport that was rapidly turning its back on the privateer.

Barely 4 1/2 months later—25 years ago today, April 1—Kulwicki lost his life in plane crash returning to Bristol, Tenn. for the 1993 Food City 500. He was coming from a sponsor appearance in nearby Knoxville. Kulwicki was set to defend his 1992 victory in that race.

Everyone knew the sport was changing.

At the end of 1992, Richard Petty was due to retire. A young sprint car driver named Jeff Gordon would make his first Cup start. Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison were taking the place of the “old guard.” And Kulwicki was at still the beginning of what proved to be a very promising career.

“No matter what else you have when you talk about Alan Kulwicki, is the speculation and the loss of potential,” NBC analyst Kyle Petty told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“How many more championships could there have been? What else could he have done? So many wins. So many poles. So many things were left laying on the table that we’ll never know.”

Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel details how Kulwicki packed up his single car and headed south to Charlotte, North Carolina, with nothing more than a dream of being involved in NASCAR’s top level.

What he brought with him was more than that little bit of machinery. The most important things were inside his head — an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a burning determination and an ability to see stock car racing not as it was, but as it would soon become.

As the sport was beginning to use data in a way that was unprecedented, the college-educated driver from outside of NASCAR’s mainstream was not encumbered by the old ways of thinking.

“I will say, Alan had a leg up on everybody on understanding what came out on that computer screen,” said Petty. “He was there when the door was open, and he was able to take advantage of those first few years when the sport headed in that direction.”

And it was likely his unique way of looking at things that won Kulwicki his only championship. With six races remaining, he trailed by 278 points and chipped away at that margin until he was among the drivers with a shot at the title in the final race.

In the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Kulwicki won the championship by crunching the numbers in his head while circling the track at 180 mph. He stayed out during a long late-race, green flag run to score enough bonus points keep Elliott from overtaking him in the standings.

Kulwicki won the title in a Ford nicknamed the “Underbird” (instead of the Thunderbird he was driving) with a pit sign made out of an image of the cartoon hero Underdog.

The sport is left to speculate what might have happened if Kulwicki had not perished in that plane crash.

Would he have eventually succumbed to the pressure that pushed most other independent, driver/owner combinations out of the sport? Or would he have won many more races and several more championships?

About that same time, Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs were establishing their teams. Kulwicki’s lone championship was wedged between four of seven earned by Dale Earnhardt.

Kulwicki’s career has been honored with four consecutive nominations to the Hall of Fame that includes a bid this year. And when he gets there, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” will play in the background, just as it did during the 1992 Winston Cup banquet.

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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NASCAR entry lists for Martinsville

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Eight drivers remain in the playoffs for Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

In addition to the Cup Series, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is also in action this weekend at Martinsville, on Saturday. The Xfinity Series is off this weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both series:

Cup – First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Two cars do not have drivers listed yet on the entry list:

* The No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Chevrolet.

* The No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

JJ Yeley is in the No. 53 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last fall. Denny Hamlin finished second and Martin Truex Jr. was third.

In this year’s spring race, Brad Keselowski won, followed by Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 (1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

There are 32 Trucks entered in the middle race of the Round of 6 of the Truck playoffs.

One Truck does not have a driver listed yet: The No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Tanner Gray, who won the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 15 DGR-Crosley Toyota.

Sam Mayer makes his second start of the season in the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet.

Danny Bohn makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports Toyota.

Carson Ware makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 33 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Dawson Cram makes his first Truck Series start of the season and fourth of his career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Toyota.

Jeb Burton makes his second Truck Series start of the season in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Also, one week after clinching the ARCA championship, Christian Eckes will make his seventh Truck start of the season, once again piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Johnny Sauter won this race last fall. Brett Moffitt was second and Myatt Snider was third.

Kyle Busch won this year’s spring race, followed by Ben Rhodes and Brett Moffitt.

Click here for the entry list.

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