Richard Petty Nearly Didn’t Qualify for His Final NASCAR Race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Where He Literally Crashed and Burned Before a Miraculous Return
In October 1991, “The King” announced that the ’92 Cup Series campaign, his 35th, would be his last, and he certainly made the most of it with a Fan Appreciation Tour that not only included dozens of special events, fan-related meetings, and awards ceremonies.
Unlike other drivers who’d spent their final seasons only participating in select races, Petty chose to run the entire 29-race schedule. But despite his stature and 200 Cup Series wins and record seven points titles, the North Carolina native wasn’t given special treatment as he had to qualify for each and every race. And that generally wasn’t an issue for the first 28 as he never started lower than 32nd.
But it did become an issue ahead of that 29th race in Atlanta, which was set to be his grand sendoff with pre-race and post-race ceremonies on the docket. But while Petty did make it into the field (barely), things certainly didn’t go as planned as a wreck and ensuing fire brought his day to a screeching halt — at least for a while.
Here’s a look back on the final NASCAR Cup Series race of the man, the myth, the legend, Richard Petty.
Richard Petty nearly didn’t qualify for the last NASCAR Cup Series race of his career
While six drivers had a mathematical chance to win the points title at the Hooters 500, Petty obviously wasn’t one of them and just wanted to get into the field one last time in Atlanta, where he won six times during his Cup Series career.
As he wasn’t eligible for the provisional starting position, he had to qualify on speed. He didn’t have a particularly great first-round qualifying run, posting the 36th-fastest time. Fifty-one drivers competed for 41 spots, which meant Petty could have easily lost his spot.
Nevertheless, he chose to let his first-round time stand, opting to sweat out the second round. And the sweat indeed came as he dropped a spot. Then another. And then another. But it thankfully stopped at three. Sure, starting 39th on the grid wasn’t ideal, but just being on the grid at all was good enough.
But seriously, how upset do you think the 160,000 people scheduled to attend the race would’ve been had Petty not qualified? But he obviously did, and the stage was set for his grand finale.
Petty was knocked out of the race when his car caught fire following a wreck
Certainly not expected to contend, especially from the 39th position, Petty ran smoothly enough for the first quarter of the 328-lap affair.
But that all changed on the 95th lap when the 55-year-old got caught up in a multi-car wreck on the frontstretch of Atlanta’s 1.522-mile track. Ken Schrader and Dick Trickle got tangled up and spun to the inside, which led Darrell Waltrip to spin as well as he attempted to avoid the incident. In doing so, he ran into Wally Dallenbach Jr.
Rich Bickle also got collected in the chaos, and “The King” slammed into him, causing the oil cooler in Petty’s famous No. 43 to break. The oil caused a massive fire as the STP Pontiac coasted into the infield. Thankfully uninjured during the melee, Petty screamed to the rescue crew to “BRING THE F***ING FIRE EXTINGUISHER,” which could be heard on the ESPN broadcast.
He safely climbed out of the car, and it seemed like his race and career were over. But that wasn’t the case.
The King’s final ride
As the race continued, Petty’s pit crew worked tirelessly to get their boss’s car back on the track. And they somehow managed to pull it off.
With two laps remaining, the No. 43 officially pulled out of the pits one final time. Sure, there was no sheet metal on the front of it, and the hood was missing, but Petty was on the track and running when Bill Elliott took the checkered flag, ultimately finishing in 35th.
Following the Victory Lane celebrations for Elliott and runner-up Alan Kulwicki, who took the points title in what at the time was the closest margin in history, Petty took one final lap around the track as Alabama’s “Richard Petty Fans” blared on the PA system.
It was truly one of the special moments in motorsports history, a moment that contributed to what many call the greatest NASCAR race of all time. That day also signaled a changing of the guard. While the 1992 Hooters 500 was the last race for Richard Petty, it was also the first Cup Series start for then 21-year-old Jeff Gordon.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference