- Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 August 2010 19:35
- Published on Tuesday, 31 August 2010 19:35
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Ever since we were kids growing up, we marked the beginning and end of summer with major auto races. Memorial Day weekend meant the Indianapolis 500 and the beginning of summer. The Labor Day weekend meant the Southern 500 from Darlington South Carolina. No matter what else went on during those weekends, come race time we were glued to the radio or TV. Planning our holiday weekends around the race broadcast was a tradition we enjoyed year after year.
A few years ago with soaring attendance, growing TV ratings and new network contracts guaranteeing a huge cash flow figure, NASCAR’s management got a bit full of themselves and decided they needed a stronger presence in major markets. In one of their dumbest moves of that time they took the Labor Day race away from tiny Darlington and moved it to Southern California. Bad move. The palm tree and latte set never did embrace NASCAR racing. The races at California Motor Speedway (excuse me, Auto Club Speedway) never have drawn a decent crowd.
Finally in the face of falling attendance and sagging TV ratings, NASCAR management is attempting to move the sport back toward its roots. Last year they took the Labor Day weekend date away from California and gave it to one of the circuit’s more traditional venues: Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s not Darlington, but it’s a heck of a lot better than California.
Through the years Atlanta has been the site of some great racing. Two such moments include Kevin Harvick’s healing win in Dale Earnhardt’s former ride and, arguably one of the most famous races in Cup history, the 1962 Hooters 500.
Kevin Harvick was thrust into the national spotlight when he won the 2001 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Not only was his win a thrilling photo finish win in which Harvick edged Jeff Gordon by .006 seconds, the fifth closest finish in NASCAR history, but the victory was a healing moment to many of the sports fans.
Just weeks earlier, the NASCAR nation lost a hero when Dale Earnhardt died in a final lap crash in the Daytona 500. Harvick, competing for Richard Childress Racing in the then Busch Series was tapped to replace Earnhardt in what was the No. 3 car, rebranded as the No. 29.
Harvick posted strong showings in his first two races before coming to Atlanta. But it was at Atlanta, where Earnhardt had won nine times, the most of any driver on the circuit, that the Goodwrench Chevrolet returned to victory lane.
“All I can say is this one’s for Dale,” Harvick said from victory lane. “I don’t know how you could script it any different. I think somebody was watching over us.”
Fans flocked to Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1962. What they witnessed that day is regarded by many as the greatest race in NASCAR history. For months fans had been lining up to buy tickets for the final race of the 35 year career of “The King,” Richard Petty.
Then came a barnburner points contest. Under NASCAR’s former season long points formula, the outcome of the championship was much in doubt. Davey Allison led the pack and needed to finish sixth or better to claim his first crown. Maverick driver/owner Alan Kulwicki was in second place, 30 points back. Hometown favorite Bill Elliott was third, 40 points behind Allison. Harry Gant was 97 back, one point ahead of Kyle Petty. Mark Martin in sixth was 113 back and still mathematically in the running.
In addition to the points race and Petty’s last ride, the race also featured veteran Rick Mast claiming his first pole and a rookie, Jeff Gordon making his first Cup start. Both drivers’ time in the limelight would be short lived. Mast and Brett Bodine crashed on lap two, while Gordon crashed on lap 164.
Kyle Petty and Martin went out with engine troubles. Davey Allison crashed on lap 254, taking him out of contention. That left Kulwicki and Elliott, who waged an exciting battled for the win and the championship.
Elliott took the win, Kulwicki was second, but took the championship. The winning margin? Ten points. The championship was secured by the bonus points for leading the most laps.
It’s not Darlington, but it’s a Labor Day weekend race you can get into.