Stewart Wants to Match Kulwicki

Alan Kulwicki

“I hope that the people at Winston, the people at NASCAR, and the competitors will all look back and say, ‘We were proud to have him represent us as our champion.’" (Photo: ISC Archives)

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After the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series completed its September stop at Richmond, Tony Stewart found himself 102 points behind series leader Kyle Busch before the points were reset for the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Once the reset was finish, Stewart was seeded ninth among the Chase eligible drivers as he had gone winless in the season’s first 26 races.

After opening the Chase with back-to-back wins, and following up with two more victories, he has moved from ninth to second, only three points behind Carl Edwards, who started the Chase ranked fifth.

If Stewart can eclipse the points deficit to win the Sprint Cup, he will match an achievement not seen since a magical season 19 years ago.

In the mid-1980s, a graduate engineer from Greenfield, Wis., started making a name for himself at NASCAR’s highest level. The record books record the fact that Alan Kulwicki had five Cup series wins in his roughly seven-year career. It also reflects that he was the Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1986. It quickly became obvious that there was something special about this driver . . . special enough to garner the attention of Hall-of-Fame car owner Junior Johnson who tried to lure Kulwicki into driving his always potent, championship-caliber cars.

Kulwicki rebuffed the offer, opting instead to go his own way, driving his own cars. Fall 1988, Kulwicki finally broke through to Victory Lane in Phoenix when he beat Terry Labonte to the finish by more than 18 seconds.

“We tried to come here with an optimistic attitude, but the car we wanted to race got wrecked at Rockingham,” Kulwicki said after his victory. “This is the car we wrecked at Charlotte and wanted to run at Atlanta. The car worked well and handled well all weekend.”

That Sunday afternoon in the Arizona desert also marked the debut of a victory celebration that would be connected to Kulwicki forever. He turned his Ford Thunderbird around, and took a reverse victory lap with his window facing the grandstand so he could share the moment with the fans.

It was nearly two years before he would win again.

The 1992 season is remembered for a number of reasons. It was the pre-retirement farewell tour for seven-time Cup Champion Richard Petty. It would also see the debut for a California native, Jeff Gordon, who would go on to win four championships of his own. Perhaps most notably, it saw one of the most unlikely title fights in NASCAR history.

With six races remaining in the season, Kulwicki found himself in a 278-point hole in the standings. That margin would be impossible to overcome today with the implementation of a new points system, but Kulwicki refused to give up. The wording on the front clip of his No. 7 Thunderbird was changed to become the “Underbird”.

A fifth-place finish at Martinsville the following week provided the spark that triggered comeback. After finishing 12th at North Wilkesboro Speedway, second at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 12th at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Kulwicki ran fourth at Phoenix. He left the desert after drawing to within 30 points of points leader Davey Allison. Bill Elliott was ranked third, 10 points behind Kulwicki as the tour entered the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

A tire blew on Ernie Irvan’s tire on Lap 273 of the Hooters 500, and Allison was caught up in the ensuing wreck. His 27th-place finish wiped out his championship hopes.

Elliott, meanwhile, was no pushover. He led seven times for 100 laps before taking the race win, but not the championship. Elliott’s title bid ended up denied due to an engineer’s careful math.

Kulwicki was in close contact with crew chief Paul Andrews on the status of the number of total laps led. With 13 laps left, Andrews radioed Kulwicki that he had clinched the five-point bonus by leading 103 laps. Kulwicki let Elliott pass him for the lead, and settled in for a comfortable finish that produced the championship by ten points.

Two weeks later, at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel in New York City, a humble Kulwicki accepted the 1992 Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) championship trophy.

“I hope that, when 1993 is over,” Kulwicki said, “the people at Winston, the people at NASCAR, and the competitors will all look back and say, ‘We were proud to have him represent us as our champion.’”

Kulwicki didn’t live to see that wish come true. He lost his life in an April 1, 1993, plane crash on his way to race at Bristol.

Since then, Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd tried to become an owner/driver Cup Series champion. Neither succeeded. Now, it’s Tony Stewart’s turn. Only Carl Edwards and 400 tough miles in South Florida stand in the way.

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