Classic Phoenix Finish for Kulwicki

Alan Kulwicki

Kulwicki celebrates with fans in Phoenix after first career Cup win. (Photo: ISC Archives)

Most long-time NASCAR fans link Bill Elliott, Davey Allison, and Alan Kulwicki to their roles in the 1992 Atlanta Journal 500. The trio had a shot at taking the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship in that race, but it wasn’t the first time their fates were tied together.

It was just over four years earlier. Sunday, November 6, 1988. NASCAR’s premiere series was making its first ever visit to Avondale, Ariz., where Phoenix International Raceway would host the next-to-last race of the year.

A journeyman driver from Wisconsin, Alan Kulwicki, had won Rookie Of The Year honors in 1986, but had not made a trip to Victory Lane. After pulling down four pole positions, and a pair of runner-up finishes, it seemed that it was not a question of if Kulwicki could win, but when.

Early in the day, it looked like Rusty Wallace had the car to beat, while Kulwicki had problems on pit road. A stuck lug nut meant that his Thunderbird had to run with three new tires instead of four for one cycle. Once again, it didn’t look like it would be Kulwicki’s day. But for the man who would later drive a car known as “Underbird”, battling back was nothing new.

Wallace faded, and Ricky Rudd took over. With 25 laps to go, Kulwicki had cut Rudd’s lead by half. Then, a radiator hose failed on Rudd’s car, forcing him out of the race he had led for 183 laps. Kulwicki set sail, and beat Terry Labonte to the finish line by more than 18 seconds.

Davey Allison finished third, while Bill Elliott came home fourth . . . a finish good enough for Elliott to preserve a points lead over Wallace heading to the final race of the season, the Atlanta Journal 500 in Hampton, Ga. From there, Elliott would claim the crown.

Alan Kulwicki had finally won, and a new tradition was about to begin. It was called “The Polish Victory Lap”, with Kulwicki taking a lap in the opposite direction, allowing him to face the grandstands, and salute the fans. It was a celebration repeated four more times, including once more at Phoenix.

Remember, Bill Elliott finished fourth at Phoenix in 1988, and went on to take the season championship. Four years later, Kulwicki would finish fourth at Phoenix, and take his own championship at Atlanta.

Join MotorRacingNetwork.com at Noon, ET, Friday, when we’ll rebroadcast the 1988 Checker 500 on this week’s edition of MRN Classic Friday.

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