Atlanta Motor Speedway has been the site of some exciting racing action over the years – and some of the sport’s closest finishes. As the track celebrates its 50th anniversary year, officials compiled a list of 10 of the most memorable moments at the facility. Here’s a look at 10 unforgettable moments in Atlanta’s storied history:
Before he was a NASCAR superstar, Bill Elliott was just a racer from Georgia trying to make his mark. And from the start, he wanted that mark to include some exceptional runs at what was then Atlanta International Raceway. In 1985, he was seeking his initial win at the track when he started third and raced to the win in the spring event. That sparked a breakout season in which he would win 11 races and finish second in the points standings – and sweep Atlanta by winning the second race at the track as well. Elliott kept up the heat in Atlanta for a while after that. From 1985-92, he won six races at the track, tying for third in the track’s history.
A new era
The Atlanta track was originally planned in 1958, but hit a snag. After construction began, work was halted because of insufficient funding that forced out four of the track’s original investors. Not for long, though. Jack Black led a group of businessmen attending an event at Darlington Raceway – and they were hooked. "It was so festive, and there were so many people there and so much excitement," said Black, one of the original shareholders who later became track president. "It just set us on fire." He and three partners joined original investor Garland Bagley and put $1.8 million into the project in order to complete the track in 1960 – when it held its first Cup race. The completion had been so rushed, though, that NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. shortened the race to 300 miles. Fireball Roberts went on to win that opening race.
Brian France's first ruling
Fans attending the 1978 Dixie 500 at Atlanta were confused by the ending of the race – and as to who the actual winner was. Richard Petty appeared to edge Dave Marcis by a fender at the line in a photo finish, but before Petty could pull into Victory Lane, the announcer named Donnie Allison the race winner. Fans had seen Allison sweep by the pair with seven laps remaining, but since he’d already been a couple of laps down in the race, they assumed he was still down a lap. Turns out, Allison had already made up those laps. But as Allison discussed his win in Victory Lane, officials announced that Petty was the winner. The fans were confused once more. Then 16-year-old Brian France, now NASCAR's Chairman and CEO, waded into the fray. He emerged from the scorers’ booth and verified that Allison was the winner.
Atlanta officials were busy prepping for their second race of the year when disaster struck on July 6, 2005. An F2 tornado ripped through the area, causing significant damage to the facility. The backstretch Weaver grandstand was destroyed. A scoring tower and billboards lay shattered on the ground and many of the luxury suites had lost their roofs. "It was one of the most astonishing scenes I have ever seen in my life. The amount of damage was shocking," said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway president. The damage, estimated to exceed $40 million, came just 100 days before the fall race weekend. Officials moved into temporary offices and went to work on a rebuilding project — and pulled everything together in time to host their NASCAR race weekend without any setbacks. It was a testament to the staff and their dedication that fans poured into the track with only a handful of reminders of the damage that had been done.
Bruton Smith and his Speedway Motorsports Inc. set their sights on Atlanta and purchased the track on Oct. 23, 1990. Smith renamed the track Atlanta Motor Speedway and immediately embarked on a long-term renovation project aimed at making the track more fan friendly. Smith added the Turn 3 Elliott Grandstand and increased the seating capacity by 25,000. Above Turn 3, 30 suites were erected. In 1992, Ed Clark was named general manager of the track and the enhancements continued. A nine-story Tara Place condo building, an adjacent Tara Clubhouse building and the Earnhardt Grandstand were all added. The track itself was changed in 1996 when the frontstretch and backstretch were swapped and the oval layout shifted to a quad-oval design with two dog-legs added to the frontstretch. The first race at the track reaped the rewards of the changes as the ARCA Reese’s 400 featured a three-wide photo finish.
Lights, camera, action!
Atlanta took on new life – the night life – on Labor Day weekend in 2009. At that time, the track became the latest on the NASCAR circuit to host late races. The track participated in a three-race swap to exchange an October race date for a night race on Labor Day weekend. Fans and drivers were excited by the change as Kasey Kahne became the first driver to win under the lights at Atlanta. "It felt awesome to win at Atlanta, especially at that point in the season where everything was coming together for the Chase," Kahne said. "It was great to see the crowd that turned out at Atlanta for that race. Since I've been racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, I haven't seen a crowd like that, especially one that excited."
In 2005, Carl Edwards was competing in his first full season of Cup competition – and seeking his first series win. The Roush Fenway Racing driver had been a force throughout the year, but nothing compared to what he would pull off at Atlanta. Edwards first garnered attention in winning the Nationwide Series race on Saturday. Then Sunday, he edged past Jimmie Johnson to take his initial Cup victory – in a photo finish. Edwards slipped past Johnson and won by just 0.028 second, the 15th-closest finish since NASCAR began electronic timing and scoring in 1972. "I just could not believe that I had won the race. I just couldn't believe it," Edwards said. "I remember right after I passed the start-finish line, the thing I remember the most is it took a second to sink in because I was racing so hard with [Johnson]. I thought, 'Man, the race is over. There's nobody in front of me. I just won the race. That means I won!'"
It's Earnhardt time
It was 2000, and Dale Earnhardt was looking to add to his top wins tally at Atlanta. The driver with the most victories at the track was expected to be a factor – and he was. Earnhardt took the top spot on lap 135, his first lead since 1998 there. He pitted, then battled Bobby Labonte for the win. They were at the front of the pack, side by side, on the final lap. As fans stood and cheered, Labonte had the edge. Then Earnhardt swept to the high side – and past Labonte. He won by 0.010 second, the sixth-closest margin in NASCAR history. "I was racing for all I could get and all it would do. I was giving everything I had. It wasn't time to take it easy," Earnhardt said after his 75th-career victory. "I knew I had to get all the yardage I could because I knew Bobby was good on long runs." Earnhardt would never race at Atlanta again as he died from injuries sustained in the season-opening 2001 Daytona 500.
The healing begins
Kevin Harvick was thrust into the spotlight when he took over Dale Earnhardt’s team in 2001. Earnhardt died from injuries sustained in the season-opening Daytona 500, and the team decided to keep racing. They changed the car number from the famous No. 3 to No. 29 and put Harvick behind the wheel. His third race with the team came at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He took the lead late and then jumped to the high side. Jeff Gordon screamed to the inside, battling for the victory. At the line, Harvick edged Gordon by 0.006 seconds, the fifth closest winning margin since NASCAR began electronic scoring and timing in 1972. Emotional fans were stunned, holding their hands high with three fingers showing. Crews lined up to usher Harvick’s car to Victory Lane. "All I can say is this one's for Dale," Harvick said from Victory Lane. "I don't know how you could script it any different. I think somebody was watching over us."
An end and a beginning
Richard Petty’s final race, Jeff Gordon’s first race and Alan Kulwicki’s championship run. All happened in 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Knowing that the race was going to be Petty’s last, the tickets sold out by mid-summer and temporary bleachers were added. For Gordon, it was the first race in what would turn into a four-championship career that is still going. For Kulwicki, it was a wild ride. Davey Allison led the standings. Kulwicki was 30 points back. Hometown favorite Bill Elliott was third, another 10 back. Allison was involved in an early crash, and Kulwicki began to strategize, trying to take the bonus points for leading the most laps. They led 103 laps, then pitted, but because of a lost gear was slow getting to speed. Elliott won the race, leading 102 laps. Kulwicki finished second and won the championship by 10 points. If the five bonus points had gone to Elliott, he would have won the championship on a tiebreaker.