Jeff Gordon, Richard Petty share memories of their first and last race: 1992 finale at Atlanta

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While Richard Petty was making the final start of his NASCAR Cup Series career at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon was making his first on November 15, 1992.

But Gordon knew his debut paled in comparison to the magnitude of the seven-time champion’s impending retirement after the season finale, which also featured a six-driver battle royale for a championship that was won by the late Alan Kulwicki.

“I certainly recognized the significance for me to be part of it because of what I was seeing,” Gordon told NBC Sports’ Kyle Petty during a sitdown interview with Richard Petty to mark the race’s upcoming 30-year anniversary (watch the video above or at the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel). “Everything was about Richard’s final race, watching him walk through the garage area. Everywhere he went he was just mobbed by cameras, media and fans.”

But it turns out, Gordon had caught the eye of “The King” as well.

“What I remember about him, seen some kid walking around over there, had a little uniform on, had a little mustache,” Richard Petty recalled with a laugh. “He was 21 years old and was trying to look like he was 30. And he really looked like he was about 16. I remember him just because of that little mustache he had, the first time I ever met him.”

‘THE KING’ AT 85: Another milestone for Richard Petty

“The King” turned to Gordon with a genuine curiosity that had been lingering for three decades.

“Why did you do that?” Petty playfully asked about the mustache.

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Jeff Gordon and the famous mustache before his Cup debut at Atlanta (ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images).

With a laugh, Gordon replied that it helped with gaining access to sprint car garage areas as an underaged teenage competitor before he went to NASCAR.

“I could grow a mustache early on, obviously not a very good one, and I thought that would make me look old enough to belong in the garage area of those races, and I kept it,” Gordon said. “You should have come over to me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what kind of career you’re going to have, but I can help you with your look!’ ”

During the sitdown, which was conducted this week at Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon and Petty recalled their memories of an Atlanta race weekend that now is remembered as a watershed in NASCAR history. It was the last title battle involving Kulwicki and Davey Allison, both of whom died after aviation-related accidents over the next eight months.

In their first interview together about the 1992 season finale, here are highlights of some memories from Gordon and Petty (the video feature of their on-camera sitdown can be seen in the embed at the top of this page above or at the Motorsports on NBC YouTube channel and a shorter version also also will run during Sunday’s Atlanta prerace show at 2 p.m ET on USA Network):


 As a legend neared the end of a farewell season without a top 10 and an upstart prepared for a high-profile rookie season, Petty and Gordon entered the race with different emotions but a similar goal: Don’t wreck. (Unfortunately, neither was successful.)

Petty: “(There was) some relief this was my last race. The big deal for me and the crew (was) run the whole race. Finish the cotton-picking race. Because this is your last race. That last year, I probably didn’t race with anybody. I was not competitive at all. I know it was my last race and was trying to be careful. Emotionally the whole family was there. All our friends come, and everybody showed up to say bye. It was a big deal, and it wasn’t. I’m not an emotional person. It’s just another day in Richard Petty’s life.

“I won my last race in ’84. And in my mind, I knew I needed it because it was going downhill already as far as being competitive. But I loved to drive the race car so much, and I knew I was going to miss it so much, and I said, ‘OK, I’m going to stay and get it completely out of my system because I see people quit and try to come back, and that don’t work.’ So I said, ‘Just stay, stay, stay,’ and it never got out of my system. But finally I think STP said, ‘We’re not going to sponsor you.’ I think that was a lot of the decisions on that.”

November 15, 1992: Hooters 500 - Richard Petty
Richard Petty in the No. 43 before the final start of his NASCAR Cup career. He finished 35th (Focus on Sport/Getty Images).

Gordon: “I was young and trying to make my own name and coming into a sport that I had a lot of respect for the competitors and tracks and the cars, but it was all new to me. I was still learning a lot. My dream was to get to the Cup level. I didn’t know a whole lot about stock-car racing. I knew who Richard Petty was. I knew who Dale Earnhardt was as a kid growing up, but I really was thinking more Indianapolis. Not so much NASCAR. So when I finally got thrust into it, I loved the cars, the tracks, the drivers. I just wanted to emulate guys like Richard, I looked up to him and wanted to be him. Every chance I got, I was trying to follow what was going on. I was racing Saturdays (in the Busch Series) with guys like Earnhardt, Jarrett, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott. I felt like I can at least keep up with them on some days. I wonder what I’ll be like to get into Cup. The final race in Atlanta. I wasn’t thinking at the time what a big deal it was going to be. I knew it was Richard’s final year and every weekend they were celebrating (him), but I had no idea what that one race was going to be like. I was just more scared to death of making my first start and I felt I was under a microscope. It wasn’t until I got there, I realized the impact he was making that day and his career being celebrated the way it was and how special it was to be a part of it.

“It was more nerves. Just being nervous about the unexpected and unknown of racing a Cup car and be out there with the best of the best. I wanted to be competitive. We’d tested and were really fast. I was feeling pretty good about myself until the first round of qualifying. I thought I was going for the pole and about wrecked. We qualified pretty good the second round. Most of it was not wanting to look like an idiot and being appreciative that I was there. There were thousands of people around him. I remember that. I remember standing atop the truck watching Richard walking through the garage area. Wow. I’d never seen that many people in the garage area. The graciousness, (he was) walking, signing, taking pictures with every single one of them. That had a big influence on me. To me I’m looking at a legend, the greatest that’s ever been, and I want to be something like that and make my own mark, but I want to follow in those footsteps. That had a big impact on me of how to treat the fans, what it’s like to have a career like (he) had and how to go out. So I think that made me realize how significant it was to be part of that weekend.”


 The actual race wasn’t very memorable for either driver. Gordon crashed early and completed only 164 of 328 laps. Petty made 95 laps but was running at the finish after being involved in a wreck.

Petty: “I don’t remember that much about it. We were running back there with Darrell (Waltrip) and two or three guys, and I don’t know if I messed up or they messed up coming off of 4. Got in a wreck and (the car) caught on fire. I drove down in the first corner, pulled up beside the fire truck. This is true. The guys got out of the fire truck, come over and want my autograph. I said, ‘Man, the car’s burning!’ You always hear the deal everyone wants to go out in a blaze of glory. I just went out in a blaze. Wasn’t no glory.

“The car was tore all to pieces. The crew said we’ve got to get him out there to finish the race. They worked a third of the race on it. I can remember I got out of the car, got up in the (team) truck, and we all had a good cry (with his wife, Lynda, and daughters). They was glad it was all over with, and then the guys said, ‘Get your helmet, we’re going to put you back on the track.’ Probably 10 laps to go, we just pulled up to the pit area and just sat there (until) a couple of laps to go, because we know we couldn’t run fast, and we still were having a heck of a race for the championship. So I just rode around a couple of slow laps. In the rundown, it shows I finished the race. That was a victory for the crew.”

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The fiery crash during Richard Petty’s last NASCAR race (ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images).

Gordon: “(The race) wasn’t long! It kind of went a lot like the rest of the weekend. We were super fast. Had a great car. I remember us moving forward in the race. In Atlanta back then, super fast and a different configuration, I remember how free you had to start the cars on a full load of fuel. These are big sweeping fast corners at Atlanta. And you just hold onto it until the car starts to tighten up and lead off the front and then you go. Well, I didn’t make it that far. My early times in stock cars in general was (about), ‘Is it tight enough?’ Everybody else told me you want the car to be neutral, which I was used to in a sprint car, but you didn’t want to be neutral on Lap 5. You wanted to be on Lap 25. So I spent a lot of time backing into a lot of things, and that’s the way that day went. All I remember is just hanging on for the first several laps of a run and then unfortunately backing into the wall early in the race and ended my day. Turn 1 and 2. I’ll never forget that.”


 Gordon also had vivid memories of a prerace drivers meeting that included several dignitaries and a present for the drivers in the field from “The King.”

Gordon: “(What) stands out the most for me was the drivers meeting. I feel like I finally made it, and here I am in this drivers meeting with all these great drivers, and because of Richard’s final race, it was all the dignitaries, the celebrities. I’m pretty sure Burt Reynolds was there. I remember some big country music stars. It was a pageantry in itself just talking about Richard’s final race. So just to be there and witness that.

“And of course the thing I cherish with some very cool things that I’ve been able to collect over the years, which is Richard did something neat for everybody that was a part of that event. He gave out these money clips. They had your starting position on it.”

Jeff Gordon holds up the commemorative money clip he received from Richard Petty before his first Cup Series start (Nate Ryan).

Petty: “Wasn’t no money in them.”

Gordon: “No money, but you were giving me hope! That day, being part of it, and holding onto this. I’ve always had it in a safe place. I’ve moved houses and always held onto this. Because that day meant a lot to me. So it says on the back here, ‘Thanks for the memories, Richard Petty.’ ”

Petty had another gift for Gordon on the morning of his final Cup Series start Nov. 22, 2015 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the No. 24 Chevrolet could win the championship with a victory. Petty presented Gordon with 93 dollar bills, one for each of his victories.

Petty: “I told him, ‘If you win the race, I’ll give you another dollar.’ ”

Gordon: “I wanted that dollar so bad. That might be my second-favorite Richard Petty moment, because (he) didn’t have to do that. He came up, brought me a hat. He pulled out 94 $1 bills. That is the coolest thing ever.”


Though it was difficult to appreciate the impact of the 1992 season finale at Atlanta in the moment, both Gordon and Petty have developed a much deeper perspective in the past 30 years.

Petty: “When it was changing, I never thought anything about it. Now  I look back at what (Gordon) accomplished, you see it was really a bigger deal than just me and him. Because the sport went into another level. After that, I think it become more commercial also. Then you got more sponsorship, you got to be known all over the United States, all over the world, because people advertised, so that made NASCAR grow. It gave them a bigger footprint. So everything changed. It wasn’t just the way we raced, the people, the way they advertised, it just changed. Looking back, it was one of the biggest changes NASCAR had over the year.”

Gordon: “So many things were happening. As a young guy coming from the open wheel world, I came and saw massive crowds. Other than the Indianapolis 500, the grandstands (of IndyCar races) were not full. In the sprint car and midget races, we had 5,000 people if it was a good race. My first NASCAR race, it might have been Rockingham, there was 35,000, 40,000 people. A ton of people there. That opened my eyes that, man, they’re doing something right here. You’ve got “The King,” “The Intimidator,” but you had great racing. Just the product on the track. Driving these cars. I came into it not expecting to enjoy the racing. OK, I’ll drive this big, heavy car. Then I got into it that I love driving this car because of the big high-banked tracks. The competition you had. I realized how good the drivers were. How good the product was on track. I was looking at it (saying), ‘I get why all these people are here.’ … Everything was being done right at that time. My timing, besides the fact I got to be in Richard Petty’s last race, my timing of starting my career could not have been better.”

Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty share a laugh after their sitdown interview about the 1992 season finale at Atlanta (Nate Ryan).

Petty: “It was perfect for your situation, and it was the same way when I came (into NASCAR in 1958). It was a perfect time for me. My dad was winning races and championships and all that, and I came in just as they started the superspeedway era. Which was great because all we were running to begin with was dirt tracks. Then they started superspeedways, and the guys running all those years went to Daytona and never run a racetrack where you run wide open. I’d run around the outside keeping it wound up. And I learned on the big tracks and some of the drivers winning before I got there never really adapted to that kind of racing. It was the perfect timing for me also.”

Gordon (directly to Petty): “I do have to say one thing. I don’t know if I’ve had the chance to do this on camera. I maybe told you in person the day you brought me those 93 dollars. I want to thank you for what you did for what you did to make the sport what it was for me. It was something on my shoulder I had to carry because of you, Pearson and those guys that built the sport up, but primarily you to what we have today.”

Petty: “We just came along at a good time while NASCAR was rolling. Me, Pearson, Allison and those guys, they made a foundation, and then you all took it from the foundation, and the tree grows a bit further. It’s still growing. We planted a lot of the seeds, and you all are getting benefit out of it.”

Gordon (laughing): “Yeah, we are. And that’s what I’m trying to get at. Thank you because it changed my life and changed a lot of people’s lives. This sport is unbelievable what it is today. You really got that all started.”

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.