Ranking the Best Season-Ending Races in Sprint Cup History
Over the course of NASCAR's long and storied history we have seen some of the most gripping points races come to a head in the season finale. Many men often come to the last race of the season with a shot at championship glory, but only one man can call himself, "champ."
Sometimes it isn't a matter of tight championship racing. Sometimes it is a matter of sentiment when it comes to an all-time crowd favorite winning the title, or just seeing a team work their heart out to claim the ultimate in NASCAR glory.
Here are the best season finales in NASCAR history. These are the races that brought us to the edge of our seat or on our feet, as well as left us with a smile on our face.
5. 1989 Atlanta Journal 500
In one of the most dramatic points battles in NASCAR history, Rusty Wallace won the NASCAR Winston Cup championship by 12 points over Dale Earnhardt following the 1989 Atlanta Journal 500.
Wallace almost lost the championship mostly due to hard racing in the latter part of the year, resulting in missed opportunities such as a crash at Phoenix the week before that sent him from first to 16th at the finish. Therefore, the championship battle went to Atlanta.
If Wallace finished 18th or better, the championship was going to be his. It was going well enough until the lug nuts came loose and he had to make an unscheduled pit stop. While trying to make up ground, it happened again,sending him further back in the pack. At one point Earnhardt had managed to wrestle the points lead away from Wallace.
However, Wallace was able to gain one of his laps back and proceeded to start picking off other drivers, which placed him 15th in the final running order. He ultimately won the championship by 12 points over Earnhardt, who led the most laps and won the race.
4. 1996 NAPA 500
The 1996 NAPA 500 was the shining moment in the Labonte family's racing legacy. On that day, younger brother Bobby Labonte won the race while older brother Terry Labonte clinched his second championship in 12 years with a fifth-place finish, winning the title by 37 points over Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
It didn't come easy for Terry, as he was racing with a cast, thanks to a broken wrist sustained in a practice crash at Phoenix the week before. Still, "The Iceman" pulled through for a top-five at Atlanta, and his duel victory lap with his younger brother that day still sticks with us 17 years later.
3. 2004 Ford 400
The 2004 season finale was enough to make you sweat, as dramatic as things were. Five drivers had a shot to win the title (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch) in a scenario that was ultimately what the powers that be in NASCAR had hoped for with their new Chase format.
Busch had been the leader heading into the race and fired the first shot of the weekend by winning the pole. However, he narrowly averted trouble when he lost his right front on lap 94 while coming to the pits. The car almost went into the pit road wall, yet Busch managed to keep the car straight. Meanwhile, the loose tire went rolling down the frontstretch, bringing out the caution.
Busch was able to keep it on the lead lap, and by day's end he was the champion by eight points over Johnson to become the first champion under NASCAR's new points format.
2. 2011 Ford 400
Had Tony Stewart performed in the post-season in 2011 like he performed in the first 26 races of the season, Carl Edwards would have finally won his first Sprint Cup championship. Instead, coming into the final race of the season, Stewart happened to be on a tear, having won four times and finishing in the top-10 seven times in the previous nine races.
He was within reach of the championship, but qualified 15th while Edwards won the pole for the race. Early on, Stewart faced trouble in the form of a piece of debris on the track while Edwards managed to lead the most laps.
Yet, at the end of the night, Stewart's car was fastest when it needed to be and he won the race while Edwards finished second. Both drivers ended the night tied for the points lead, yet while Edwards had Stewart beat in top-fives and top-10s, Stewart's five wins in the Chase trumped Edwards' lone 2011 win at Las Vegas in March.
1. 1992 Hooter's 500
The 1992 Hooter's 500 at Atlanta was huge not only because of the tight points battle, but of the storylines that took place that day. "The King," Richard Petty, was making the final start of his career while NASCAR's future king Jeff Gordon was making his first. Meanwhile, six drivers had a shot at winning the Winston Cup championship that day, as Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Harry Gant, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin were all battling to win the championship that day.
Attrition ruled the afternoon that day, as everyone from Gordon and Petty to Allison and Martin had some sort of trouble. The battle for the Winston Cup came down to Elliott and Kulwicki by day's end. While Elliott won the race, Kulwicki led one more lap and clinched the most laps led. As a result, he earned 10 bonus points to put himself over Elliott as the 1992 Winston Cup champion.
Kulwicki, an underdog from Greenfield, Wisconsin, was the last owner/driver to win a Cup championship until Tony Stewart in 2011. Kulwicki was one of four who perished in a plane crash in early 1993. He never got a chance to defend his championship.