NASCAR: The Evolution Of The Sport (1990-1994)

Bert WilberCorrespondent IFebruary 3, 2010

The 1990 NASCAR Winston Cup season arrived with NASCAR's wheels churning progressively forward. Several motivated, energetic, youthful drivers were pressing the seasoned veterans for membership in the elite status of NASCAR Winston Cup racing.

A number of the old warriors were conceding to Father Time as they fell further and further behind the newcomers, and the heated race for the championship would be decided by only 26 points.

Dale Earnhardt cut a tire on the final lap, allowing for Derrike Cope to post his first NASCAR Winston Cup win in the Daytona 500. Cope edged Terry Labonte by two car lengths. 

Cope proved his Daytona 500 victory was no fluke by steering the No. 10 Purolator Chevrolet to a convincing win in the June 3 Budweiser 500 at Dover Downs International Speedway.

Cope ran down Rusty Wallace with 55 laps remaining and drove to his second career NASCAR Winston Cup win. Dale Earnhardt's engine blew just 23 laps into the race.  

Morgan Shepherd won the season finale at Atlanta, as Dale Earnhardt finished third and captured his fourth NASCAR Winston Cup title. Mike Ritch, a crewman for Bill Elliott's team, is fatally injured when he is hit on pit road.

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Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin battled down to the wire for the 1990 NASCAR Winston Cup championship, and Earnhardt took his fourth title in the final two races of the season. 

Martin led the standings from June through October, but Earnhardt rallied with a win at Phoenix and a third-place effort in the finale at Atlanta and prevailed by 26 points over Martin.

Martin's loss was bitter for his Jack Roush team. Martin won at Richmond in February, but NASCAR officials discovered that his carburetor spacer was a half inch too thick. The team was fined $40,000 and stripped of 46 points. 

In October, Earnhardt left the pits at Charlotte with the left-side wheels unattached, and they flew off in the first turn. His pit crew ran out to the car and secured the tires in place, ignoring a NASCAR official's command to stay away from the car.

Rules state that a pit crew can't work on a car when it is on the racing surface. Earnhardt rejoined the race without losing much time. NASCAR considered imposing a penalty, but none was given, and Earnhardt went on to win the title.

By the end of the 1991 NASCAR Winston Cup season, driver Dale Earnhardt was far enough ahead in the points race to capture the championship simply by starting his engine in Atlanta for the last race. But there was plenty of other action throughout the season to keep fans on the edges of their seats.

Harry Gant, a 51-year-old driver, captured quite a lot of attention and more than a few headlines with his dramatic comebacks and wins, and NASCAR Winston Cup racing also attracted a new television venue in 1991 when The Nashville Network (TNN) scooped up five events, taking them away from ESPN.

Among the many exciting encounters in 1991, Harry Gant finished the Winston 500 at Talladega on fumes and coasted across the finish line 11 seconds ahead of runner-up Darrell Waltrip. Kyle Petty broke his leg in a crash on the backstretch, knocking him out of action for three months. 

At Sears Point, Ricky Rudd finished first, but NASCAR disallowed his final lap and declared Davey Allison the winner in the controversial race. Rudd knocked Allison into a spin with just over a lap to go and sped to victory.

Allison recovered and finished four seconds behind Rudd but was elevated to first when NASCAR assessed Rudd a five-second penalty for rough driving.

Later in the year, Dale Jarrett prevailed in a photo finish over Davey Allison to win his first NASCAR Winston Cup event in the Champion Spark Plug 400. Jarrett edged Allison by 10 inches in the closest finish in Michigan International Speedway history.

1991 also had its share of tragedy, as veteran 52-year-old campaigner J.D. McDuffie died instantly when he slid off the track and hit a steel retaining barrier at Watkins Glen. Ernie Irvan led most of the way to win the 218.52-mile race.

Earnhardt may have had the championship in the bag, but the story of the year had to be ageless Harry Gant. Gant provided the most fireworks during the season, winning four races in a row during the month of September.

The 51-year-old won five races for the year and had six more top-five finishes than Ricky Rudd, but he finished a distant fourth in the title race, more than 100 points behind runner-up Rudd.

The 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup season was touched by sadness, as 82-year-old NASCAR founder Bill France passed away in June, but this loss was counterbalanced by the excitement of one of the closest races for the Winston Cup in years. 1992 was also distinctive in that Dale Earnhardt was not a contender, plagued with a car that couldn't quite keep up and just some plain bad luck.

Earnhardt still managed to win in 1992, avoiding the watchful eye of NASCAR officials as he exceeded the 55-mph speed limit down pit road for his final stop, then outran Ernie Irvan to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Earnhardt trailed by more than three seconds entering the pit stop but returned to the track 1.27 seconds ahead of his closest rival. Other contenders howled in protest after the race.

In perhaps an unfortunate foretelling of future events, Clifford Allison, younger brother of Davey, lost his life in a practice crash for the NASCAR Busch Series event three days before the race. In a strange twist of fate, Davey would lose his own life just a year later at Talladega.

At the close of the 1992 season, Davey Allison snatched the lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup title chase with a win in the Pyroil 500 at Phoenix. Allison led Alan Kulwicki by 30 points and Elliott by 40 points heading into the finale at Atlanta.

Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki engaged in an epic struggle, with Elliott scoring a narrow victory in the season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta. Points leader Davey Allison was knocked out of the title hunt by an early crash with Ernie Irvan.

Elliott won the race but failed to pick up points on Kulwicki, who clung to a narrow 10-point margin in the final standings. It was the closest title race in NASCAR history. Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Winston Cup start as Richard Petty competed in his final event.

The 1993 NASCAR Winston Cup season offered its usual share of exciting races, but it was also touched with tragedy, as two of NASCAR's up-and-coming stars—1992 champion Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison—were both killed during the season.

Although driver Rusty Wallace offered a late-season streak, winning five of the last eight races, he was no match for Dale Earnhardt, who won his sixth Winston Cup championship in 1993.

Reigning NASCAR Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki perished in a private plane crash en route to Bristol for the Food City 500. Rusty Wallace won the race three days later and honored Kulwicki with a ceremonial opposite-direction "Polish victory lap."

Three months later, Rusty Wallace chased down Davey Allison in the final laps to win the first NASCAR Winston Cup race staged at the New Hampshire International Speedway. The following day, Allison was gravely injured in a helicopter crash on the grounds of Talladega Superspeedway. Allison passed away the following morning.  

Tragedy followed the 1993 season right into Daytona in 1994, as veteran driver Neil Bonnett lost his life in a practice crash at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the upcoming Daytona 500. Bonnett's Chevrolet broke loose in the fourth turn and slapped the wall nearly head-on.

1994 was the young driver Jeff Gordon's first year on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit. A youthful Jeff Gordon hustled past Ricky Rudd with nine laps to go and went on to win the Coca-Cola 600, the first career NASCAR Winston Cup win for the 22-year-old.

Gordon went on later that year to lead the final five laps and hold off Brett Bodine to win the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. More than 340,000 trackside spectators watched Gordon claim his second career victory.