Looking Back at History: the 1978 Dixie 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Brian France Rule's in one of NASCAR's Most Exciting Finishes The following is the second part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history...
Looking Back at History: the 1978 Dixie 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Brian France Rule's in one of NASCAR's Most Exciting Finishes
The following is the second part in a weekly series highlighting Atlanta Motor Speedway's storied history as the track prepares for its 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup race, the March 8th Kobalt Tools 500.
HAMPTON, Ga. (February 18, 2009) -- Whether the sport involved is professional football or NASCAR racing, there's nothing that excites fans more than a dramatic ending.
As history shows, NASCAR races at Atlanta Motor Speedway often are decided in the closing seconds, just as the Pittsburgh Steelers battled back against the Arizona Cardinals in this year's Super Bowl.
But in one memorable AMS race, the 1978 Dixie 500, the 39th of 99 Cup races run at the track, the drama continued long after the checkered flag fell.
In the 1970s NASCAR world, rivalries were the rage -- Ford versus Chevy, Petty versus Pearson, Petty versus Allison. Many times the Petty-Allison contests were between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. But in the 1978 Dixie 500, it was Bobby Allison's brother Donnie squaring off against King Richard Petty.
Both Allison and Petty rode season-long winless streaks into Atlanta for the next-to-last race of the season. Petty hadn't won since July in Daytona the year before. Donnie Allison's last victory had come at Rockingham the fall before, but his Hoss Ellington-prepared Chevrolet had been fast on the superspeedways that year. He finished third at Atlanta in the spring, and had runner-up runs at Charlotte and Talladega along with two other top-fives, at Michigan and Charlotte.
Buddy Baker, driving the No. 27 owned by M.C. Anderson, dominated much of the fall Atlanta race, but he dropped out on Lap 311 with a blown engine.
"Buddy's car was the fastest that day, but mine was one of the fastest all day long," Allison said. "But I lost two laps when I came off the banking too fast making a pit stop and wadded up the left-front fender."
As the laps wound down, with the skies darkening by the minute, a five-car crash set up a short sprint to the finish. When the green flag was displayed, Petty passed race leader Dave Marcis. But Allison, who was still being shown a lap down on the scoreboard, bolted past them both and was several carlengths out front when Petty nipped Marcis by a fender at the finish, seemingly ending his losing streak.
But as the cars circled the track on the cool-down lap, the track announcer stated that Allison had won, so he and his No. 1 Hawaiian Tropic-sponsored Chevrolet were directed to Victory Lane. Then, after further consultation of the scoring cards, an announcement came that Petty was the winner.
Allison said there was never any doubt in his mind that he won the race.
"On that last caution, I got on the radio and told Hoss, 'Get with NASCAR and straighten out the scoring, because I'm fixing to win this race,'" he said.
When asked that night about the decision to award Petty the win, Allison said he too would like to see the King end his losing streak. "I'd like to see him win too, but only if he really wins the race," Allison said. "And don't forget, it's been a while since I won too."
While Petty was being interviewed in the press box, NASCAR officials continued to try to sort out the scoring. Fortunately for Allison, NASCAR's current chairman Brian France, then 16-years old, was working in the scoring booth that day.
"Brian told his daddy and his mama that I won the race," Allison said. "He said my scorer had been pulling for Richard and not paying attention to the race."
Young France's point was proven by the cards, forcing his father, Bill France Jr., to own up to the mistake in the press room, an event recounted by author Greg Fielden in his "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing."
"First, we need to wipe the egg off our face," France began. We've sure "got plenty of it on it."
He ended his remarks by confirming that Allison, who was nowhere to be found at that point, had scored his 10th career Cup victory.
"Donnie Allison is the winner," he said. "That's official and final."
It also turned out to be the final Cup victory of Allison's career. Although he never ran a full schedule, he wound up with a lot to show for his efforts -- 10 wins, 78 top-five and 115 top-10 finishes in just 242 starts. He also won 18 poles.
"If you look at my stat sheet, it's pretty impressive," he said.
That '78 race at Atlanta also proved pivotal in the career of the late Dale Earnhardt. Driving a team car to Marcis, he finished fourth, his first-ever top-five Sprint Cup finish. His performance helped convince team owner Rod Osterlund to give Earnhardt his best car when Marcis departed the team in a dispute over running two cars. Earnhardt got his first win the next season in Osterlund's car and won Rookie of the Year. The following season he won the first of his seven championships.
Richard Petty bounced back in a big way after his winless '78 season. The next year he won five races and his seventh championship. He would win 10 more races before retiring for good, at Atlanta in 1992.
As with any great race, a glimpse down through the running order can be instructive.
Among the competitors that November day in '78 were three aspiring young drivers who would become big winners in the decades to come. Their names -- Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott.
More names will be added to Atlanta Motor Speedway's history during the Speedway's 100th Sprint Cup weekend for March 8's Kobalt Tools 500.
Tickets priced as low as $39 are available for the Kobalt Tools 500 on March 8. To purchase your tickets, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at 877-9-AMS-TIX (877-926-7849) or 770-946-4211, visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com, or contact your local Ticketmaster retailer.