75 things for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary: Best title fights

We are closing in on the final handful of weeks of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the stock car series’ 75th anniversary campaign. To celebrate, each week through the end of the season, Ryan McGee is presenting his top five favorite things about the sport.

Top five best-looking cars? Check. Top five toughest drivers? We’ve got it. Top five mustaches? There can be only one, so maybe not.

Without further ado, our 75 favorite things about NASCAR, celebrating 75 years of stock car racing.

Previous installments: Toughest drivers | Greatest races

Top five best title fights

Thus far we’ve had lists of tough guys and great races, including great races featuring tough guys, but why do all these tough guys run all these great races in the first place? To win championships! Dale Earnhardt himself admitted on countless occasions that he’d trade in any and all of his 76 race wins — yes, including his long-sought 1998 Daytona 500 victory — for another Cup.

“People think I’m lying about trading that Daytona 500 trophy, but in the end, the end of the season is what this is all about,” The Intimidator said to me in 2000. “It’s about winning championships.”

So, with that sentiment fresh in our mind, exactly what were the greatest title bouts in NASCAR Cup Series history? Grab a Cup, any Cup, be it Strictly Stock, Grand National, Winston, Nextel, Sprint or today’s massive sponsorless chalice, and read ahead as we present our top five greatest NASCAR title bouts.

Honorable Mention: 1950 — Cracking engines at Occoneechee

NASCAR’s second Cup Series season was also one of its craziest, from 14 winners in 19 races to the introduction of Darlington Raceway. In the season finale at Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough, North Carolina, Bill Rexford of Conewango, New York, entered as the points leader, but his Oldsmobile popped an engine early. Sitting on a stack of tires, he watched Fireball Roberts take the lead in the race and the championship … but then the future NASCAR Hall of Famer blew his motor while battling Fonty Flock and eventual race winner Lee Petty for the win.

Why didn’t Roberts take it easy and clinch the title? “Winning the race paid $1,500,” Fireball explained later. “I wanted the money.”

5. 1979: Richard Petty over Darrell Waltrip

When Waltrip crashed the NASCAR establishment in the 1970s with his nonstop chatter and seemingly limitless confidence, he made zero friends in the garage. Bobby Allison hated him. Cale Yarborough nicknamed him “Jaws” because he said the guy from Owensboro, Kentucky, was always running his mouth. Even Richard Petty, who rarely said a cross word publicly, became vocal about Waltrip and his overeager pioneering in the ways of talking smack.

By early June 1979, Waltrip had already won four races and seized a lead in the point standings that had ballooned to more than a full race’s worth of an advantage by midsummer. Then, The King started whittling away. He finished sixth or better in the season’s final seven races and suddenly he became the vocal one, visibly rattling Waltrip and his DiGard team.

They swapped the championship lead in each of the final four events. When Waltrip spun out in the Ontario, California, season finale, he finished three spots behind Petty, a lap down, and lost the title by a scant 11 points.

4. 1990: Earnhardt being Earnhardt

After back-to-back nail-biter title bouts vs. Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt battled Mark Martin for the 1990 Cup.

Martin won at Richmond, Virginia, in February but was penalized 46 points when NASCAR ruled that his Jack Roush Ford had used a carburetor spacer that was a half inch too thick. The team’s appeal was denied. Meanwhile, at Charlotte, North Carolina, in October, Earnhardt was not penalized when his crew disobeyed orders from race control, running out to his car to reattach a loose tire after his Chevy had left the pits.

Adding to the drama, Ford, desperate to defeat Earnhardt, sent Martin to Atlanta for a test session prior to the finale, but had him hopping between cars from all of the Blue Oval-supplied teams. It was a frantic mess. Sensing their panic, Earnhardt, also at the test, put four left-side tires on his car, posted a super-fast lap, and then went to sleep in his car where Martin could see him, all for no reason other than to get into his rival’s head. It worked.

Martin had led the standings nearly all season, but never got a handle on the Ford he was put in at Atlanta, a borrowed Thunderbird from Robert Yates. Earnhardt led 42 laps and finished third. Martin finished sixth. Earnhardt won the title by 26 points. Without the penalty, Martin would have earned the Cup by 20 points. Instead, he still carries the title “Best to Never Win It All.”

3. 1973: Benny Parsons over Yarborough

In 1973, Parsons was driving for underfunded team owner L.G. Dewitt, who lived in Rockingham, North Carolina, and Parsons himself lived in nearby Ellerbe. So, when they took the green flag as the points leaders in the season finale, held at the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, the hometown crowd was on their side.

Luck was not.

Parsons was involved in a huge crash on Lap 13 that ripped the entire right side off his unsponsored Chevy. That seemingly opened the door for Yarborough to run away with the championship. Then a miracle happened.

All of the crew members on all of the other independent teams started running back to the garage to help Parson reconstruct his destroyed car. He made it back out, finishing 183 laps behind factory-supported Yarborough but scoring just enough points to win the Cup, the last time an independent team took home the title … and in this case took it to their home just a few miles from the track. Read more about that day in this piece I wrote in 2011.

2. 2011: Tony Stewart over Carl Edwards

When the Chase for the Cup format was introduced in 2004, it immediately changed the way Cup Series titles were won, instantly creating every-year reset-button drama that hadn’t existed before. That very first year, Kurt Busch somehow dodged the pit wall as a tire came off his Ford and went on to clinch the Cup. But the gold standard of the Chase/Playoff era is and will forever be the Homestead-Miami finale of 2011.

Stewart had struggled all season, and crew chief Darian Grubb had been told he was being let go at the end of the year. Then Stewart won the first two races of the 10-race postseason. Then he won twice more. When he won for the fifth time in 10 races in the finale, it not only tied Edwards for the points lead after 36 races but also clinched the tiebreaker and won the title. Edwards led the most laps in the race — 119 to Stewart’s 65 — and finished second in the race, even done in by an ill-timed rain shower that opened the door for Stewart to get back into the fight for his third and final title.

1. 1992: Alan Kulwicki defeats Bill Elliott and Davey Allison

This is the second week in a row the 1992 Hooters 500 has topped our top-5 list. That’s how incredibly epic the day was.

Allison came into Atlanta Motor Speedway with the points lead but wrecked midway through the day. That left the fight between Kulwicki, the self-titled “Underbird,” and his self-built team and Elliott, driving for superpower Junior Johnson and Associates.

Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki finished second and, doing quick math, had deftly stayed out under caution to lead an extra lap. In the end, he led one more lap than Elliott, 103 to 102, and those 10 bonus points for leading the most laps on the day made the difference. They both finished the day with 180 points, but Kulwicki finished the season with a 10-point advantage.

Making the day even more poignant in retrospect, by the next summer Kulwicki and Allison were gone, killed in separate plane and helicopter crashes.

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