Six Hall of Fame Memories from Atlanta Motor Speedway
by Tom Jensen June 05, 2020
Atlanta Motor Speedway produces high speeds and high drama.
Everything old is new again, as NASCAR has made major schedule changes in the wake of the global pandemic. And that means revisiting the sport’s historic roots deep in the Southeast.
In NASCAR’s first season of 1948, the two states where it raced most often were North Carolina and Georgia, and both those locales are seeing plenty of action this spring.
On Sunday, the NASCAR premier series makes its second visit of the year to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which over the years has produced some great racing and fantastic finishes.
The track opened in 1960 as Atlanta International Raceway as a conventional 1.5-mile oval. That first weekend the facility was barely ready to host a NASCAR race. There was thick Georgia mud everywhere and the only infield restroom was a three-hole outhouse. Fortunately, things got a lot better over the years.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Bruton Smith (2016) purchased Atlanta International Raceway in 1990, renaming it Atlanta Motor Speedway. Seven years later Smith had the racing surface reconfigured to a 1.54-mile quad oval with a pair of doglegs on the front straightaway. Since that time, Atlanta has become a driver favorite, with multiple racing grooves that allow passing all over the track.
Here are six Hall of Fame memories from Atlanta Motor Speedway:
When it opened in 1960, Atlanta International Raceway was a conventional 1.5-mile oval, the seventh paved track one-mile or longer on the NASCAR circuit. The Atlanta track began operation the same year as its new sister track, Charlotte Motor Speedway, and just a year after Daytona International Speedway started operations. The first race at the Atlanta track was the Dixie 300 on July 31, 1960, with Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts (2014) winning from the pole in a 1960 Pontiac prepared by Smokey Yunick. It would be Roberts’ only victory at the track.
"Fast Freddie" Shows the Way
The earliest driver to dominate at Atlanta International Raceway was Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen (2015), who won four of the first 10 races at the 1.5-mile oval, all while driving the powerhouse No. 28 Fords out of the Holman-Moody Racing stable. In 1966 at Atlanta, Lorenzen drove team owner and Hall of Famer Junior Johnson’s (2010) infamous – and dubiously legal - “Yellow Banana” Ford in its only on-track appearance at a NASCAR race. Lorenzen qualified on the pole in Johnson’s car but crashed out of the race.
A pair of Hall of Fame brothers from Texas came up huge in the final race of the 1996 NASCAR season, with Bobby Labonte (2020) winning the NAPA 500 from the pole, while a fifth-place finish was enough to earn his older brother Terry (2016) a second Cup championship. For the entire Labonte family, it was a triumphant and emotional day.
“For Terry and I, I think of my parents and they’ve got two kids in Victory Lane,” said Bobby. “And I’m thinking about all those days of quarter-midget racing, they never wavered, nothing like that. As we celebrated throughout the afternoon and the evening, I’ll never forget my dad. We were sitting there, went to the motor home, we’re sitting there talking and he goes, “Cowboys won, too.” So it was like, ‘Hey, alright. Dallas Cowboys won, I won, Terry won.”
Nobody enjoyed as much success at Atlanta Motor Speedway as Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (2010). The seven-time champion led all drivers with nine victories and 26 top-five finishes at Atlanta. Earnhardt’s average finish of 9.54 was tops among drivers with at least five starts at Atlanta.
At the 2000 Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500, Earnhardt out-dragged fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte (2020) by 0.01 seconds in one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history. “I didn’t know if I could hold him off or not. I knew he’d be strong on long runs,” Earnhardt said of Labonte. “We just went out there and went after it as hard as I could. That was the thing. I knew I had to get all the length I could. Then I found me a line that seemed to be a little faster than he was. It was just awesome.”
A Healing Moment
Just three weeks after the death of Hall of Famer and seven-time NASCAR premier series champion Dale Earnhardt (2010) in the 2001 Daytona 500, rookie Kevin Harvick beat another Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon (2019) to the start-finish line by 0.006 seconds to win the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Harvick, who took over Earnhardt’s seat in the Chevrolet owned by Hall of Famer Richard Childress (2017), won his first premier series race in just his third start. It was a hugely emotional moment for the team and the millions of still-grieving Earnhardt fans.
“I’m just thrilled,” Childress said as he fought back tears on pit road after the race.
“I kept praying for Dale to help us and he did.”
— Richard Childress
One for the Ages
The season-ending 1992 NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was one of the most dramatic, memorable and talked about races in NASCAR history. The Atlanta race was the 1,184th and final NASCAR premier series start for Hall of Famer Richard Petty (2010), and the first of what would turn out to be 805 career starts for another Hall of Famer, Jeff Gordon (2019).
Five drivers came into the race with a chance to win the championship. But when Davey Allison (2019) got taken out in a crash, the race and the title came down to a battle between Alan Kulwicki (2019), the no-nonsense college-educated Wisconsin driver and Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott (2015). In the end, Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki finished second and took the ’92 championship because he led one more lap than Elliott. By leading the most laps, Kulwicki picked up 5 bonus points, which gave him the 10-point margin he needed to edge out Elliott for the NASCAR championship.
Kulwicki became the first true owner/driver to win the premier series championship since NASCAR Hall of Famer Rex White (2015) in 1960 and the first to come from behind and win the title in the final race of the year since Petty in 1979.