NASCAR’s Cup point system has always been criticized by fans and competitors. Someone always feels there is a better way to calculate the championship. (This site’s own Dale Watermill, for example.) The truth is, there are an infinite number of systems that could be applied and someone will not like whatever version is chosen. But in all the variations that have been implemented, flawed as they were, several very compelling stories emerged through the years to capture fans’ attention.
1. Alan Kulwicki 1992. The Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway closed the 1992 Cup campaign and it was a race for the ages. Five drivers were in championship contention when the green flag waved. Kulwicki, Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty all wanted their first series trophy. When the checkered flag waved Kulwicki was the man of the hour because he led one more lap than Elliott. Kulwicki led 103 laps to Elliott’s 102, giving Kulwicki five more points. He won the title by 10. Take those five points away from Kulwicki and give them to Elliott and they would have been tied. Awesome Bill then would have won the tiebreaker for winning five races to Kulwicki’s two. This was also Richard Petty’s final career race and Jeff Gordon’s first career start. I still have my ticket stub, event T-shirt and program tucked safely away in my attic. No, they are not for sale. This was truly a historic race.
2. Richard Petty 1979. Veteran Petty battled all season long with young up-and-comer Darrell Waltrip and a great rivalry ensued. Entering the final race at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway, Waltrip led Petty by a slim two points. Petty’s fifth-place finish, and being the lap leader, compared to Waltrip’s eighth place allowed “The King” to clinch his seventh Cup title by 11 points. The seven championships are a measure of excellence that still stands today.
3. Dale Earnhardt 1994. Earnhardt tied Petty’s seven championship mark at Rockingham. There were still two races remaining after the AC Delco 500, which just showed “The Intimidators’” dominance. The season was largely a two-man race with Ernie Irvan challenging Earnhardt until Irvan’s career-stalling injury in practice at the August race in Michigan. Irvan did not return to the track until 1996.
4. Darrell Waltrip 1985. Bill Elliott grabbed headlines by winning 11 races, all on superspeedways. “Awesome Bill” claimed the first Winston Million Dollar bonus at the Southern 500 and held a 206-point advantage over Waltrip. Many were willing to engrave the Cup with Elliott’s name. But Waltrip stormed ahead and took over first place in the standings a mere four races later at North Wilkesboro. The final totals showed Waltrip finishing the campaign 101 points over Elliott. Waltrip won only three races during Elliot’s dominant year, but was more consistent. This was also the first season any driver won more than $1 million.
5. Cale Yarborough 1978. Jimmie Johnson is chasing history. And Yarborough is the man he is chasing. With all of the driving legends who have passed through the stock car elite, only once prior to 2008 had anyone won three consecutive Cups. Cale Yarborough set a mark in 1978 that lasted for 30 years until Johnson matched the accomplishment last season. Johnson now stands on the threshold of a feat that nobody in this division of racing has ever accomplished.
The more recent championship winners will have to wait until the future to see where they rank in NASCAR history. Jeff Gordon’s four titles and Kurt Busch’s initial Chase trophy are among them. And what looks like Johnson’s four straight Cups are amazing, but will accurately be placed in history after the Lowe’s helmet has been hung up for the final time.
(Patrick Reynolds is a professional racing mechanic who has worked for several NASCAR teams.)
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