In victory lane at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 16, 1992, the heir apparent of the famed Alabama Gang, Davey Allison, celebrated his dominant win in the Great American Race.
The moment unfolding on CBS nationwide felt like a milestone on Allison’s rising career trajectory since his initial NASCAR Cup Series win in 1987 at Talladega. He seemed well on his way to joining his father Bobby Allison’s legacy as an elite stock car driver. With the charm of a southern country kid that made him a favorite of fans and competitors alike, he was positioned to carry NASCAR on his shoulders over the next decade.
Unfortunately, as fate played out, Allison’s Daytona 500 win was the pinnacle of his career.
The young, second generation driver from Hueytown, Ala., was entering Speedweeks at the start of his sixth year in the No. 28 Texaco Havoline Ford ready to be a preeminent frontrunner.
Since his rookie campaign in 1987, the 30-year-old had 13 wins and was coming off his best season. After a rough start in 1991, Daytona 500 pole aside, an early season crew chief change brought in Larry McReynolds from Kenny Bernstein’s No. 26 squad. The duo clicked immediately and the wins piled up. After Atlanta in the fall, Allison finished third in points with five victories, both single-season career bests for him.
Now his team rolled into Daytona International Speedway’s garages as a favorite for the Great American Race and the season championship. Much like Bobby and uncle Donnie Allison, he knew how to get around a superspeedway. He’d proven immediately he wasn’t timid on the high-banked tracks by qualifying second in his rookie Daytona 500 and later earning that first victory at his home track at Talladega Superspeedway. Two more wins followed on NASCAR’s biggest oval, and of course there was the emotional 1988 Daytona 500 runner-up to his dad.
Still, Allison’s return to Daytona after sitting on the pole the previous year wasn’t the only story. Much attention was paid to future Hall of Famer Richard Petty in his last Daytona 500 attempt. The seven-time Daytona 500 winner was kicking off a farewell tour and was trying to get back to victory lane for a record-extending eighth time.
Then there was the new pairing of two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott with Junior Johnson’s No. 11 Ford team, whose cars had been to victory lane in the race twice before. After 10 years with Melling Racing, Elliott was looking to get back into the championship hunt. With strong backing from Budweiser, the team hit Speedweeks with a strong package. In the previous race held at Daytona in July, the No. 11 then driven by Geoff Bodine finished second to Elliott in his last win with Melling. Now the two parties were together and ready to get 1992 rolling.
As for Allison, his career ascent heading into the season was significant for the series at a junction when many older stars from the early Cup era were retiring. He was the son of a legendary champion who had retired in 1988, so the Allison name carried a lot of weight as fans were just coming off over 20 years of witnessing Bobby rack up 84 wins. Much like NASCAR fandom experienced with the Earnhardt family later, the younger Allison was capable of bridging his dad’s fans with his own, cementing his popularity. Raised up and among stock car elites, Allison still possessed a humble and relatable personality, that was evident in multiple interviews and commercials.
His results through the end of 1991 were relatively unprecedented at his age when compared to his competitors. The 30-year-old (he’d turn 31 later that month) had more wins than Dale Earnhardt or Darrell Waltrip at that age in their careers. Elliott had won 17 races before turning 31, but 11 came from his 1985 season, while Allison was just coming off his best year with only five wins. All of these drivers were champions, so the presumption that Allison was going to join them was not farfetched. Clearly, he was part of NASCAR’s future.
The race kicked off with a Johnson team front row, as Sterling Marlin’s No. 22 Maxwell House Ford led the field followed by teammate Elliott. Allison started sixth. Ford had the dominant motor for 1992, and it showed that quickly once the green fell. Due to the engine advantage, other teams wrestled with early decisions on spoiler angles to mitigate the top-speed Fords. Goodyear had also brought a sturdy tire that didn’t degrade drastically, which Allison’s team worked to their advantage as he comfortably sat in the top five behind the Johnson Fords.
During the first round of pit stops, McReynolds made a two-tire call, which propelled the Texaco Ford more than 13 seconds ahead. In this early era of restrictor plates, the field strung out and so Allison held this advantage up to the race’s first yellow for moisture on track.
Before halfway and after another round of pit stops, the field restarted with Marlin back to the point followed by Elliott and the Chevrolet of 1991 Daytona 500 winner Ernie Irvan. On the backstretch on lap 91, after Marlin ran Elliott high to maintain momentum, Irvan dove to the inside.
Calamity then unfolded. Irvan moved up without clearing Marlin, and the contact turned the No. 22 Junior Johnson Ford into his teammate. Elliott and Irvan then careened into each other. It was the Big One.
Multiple winning cars, mostly Fords of course, were knocked out of the race. Both Johnson cars were parked. The 1989 winner Waltrip, who told CBS that was the “best car” he’d ever had at Daytona, was in the garage. Mark Martin’s Ford hood looked like a Valvoline highway billboard. Irvan, Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace also had damage.
Through the carnage shot Allison, like Cole Trickle from the two-year old Days of Thunder movie. He cleared the melee and never looked back. Only seven cars remained on the lead lap when the field restarted on lap 100. Over the final 250 miles, Allison led 95 laps. Morgan Shepherd vainly tried to leapfrog Allison in his Wood Brothers Ford, staying in the leader’s rearview mirror over the second half of the race, but was unable to mount a strong charge. Allison took the win, followed by Shepherd and Bodine in Bud Moore’s No. 15 Motorcraft Ford.
In victory lane, Allison celebrated his 14th win holding his two children, appearing as ecstatic as he did celebrating in 1988 with his dad. The win launched his championship hopes immediately.
Other notable results and facts viewed through history’s lens included the second- and third-place finishers. Shepherd would never top his runner-up through the rest of his career, and arguably had his best shot to win in 1992. The 1986 winner Bodine would repeat his third place in 1993 and again in 2002.
Alan Kulwicki’s fourth was his best result in the 500. It was a springboard for a competitive season that eventually led to his title in November. Kyle Petty’s sixth made up for a disappointing finish the year before when he was involved in Earnhardt’s wreck with three laps to go. In 1993 he’d return and win the pole.
Oldsmobile earned two spots in the top 10, with Dick Trickle fifth and Terry Labonte seventh. It was the final time the auto manufacturer would compete in the event it won twice before. Another Oldsmobile driven by Buddy Baker just missed the top 10, placing 11th. The 1980 Daytona 500 winner wouldn’t make the field in 1994, so the race was his last as he transitioned to full-time broadcasting, joining Ned Jarrett as the color commentator for CBS’s Daytona 500 coverage through 2000.
Finally, two legends of motorsports ran their final Daytona 500s. Richard Petty was caught up in the Big One on lap 95, but his crew repaired the damage and he soldiered to 16th, two laps down. IndyCar champion and 1972 Daytona winner AJ Foyt quietly ran his last one, finishing 21st. He’d qualify for one more Cup race, the inaugural 1994 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fresh off a Super Bowl win, Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs’ new team completed its first Daytona 500. Unfortunately his driver Dale Jarrett was involved in the Big One and finished 36th. The next year would bear better results for the start-up operation.
As for Allison, the win proved to be the ignition for a very manic season for the Robert Yates Racing team. He’d chalk up five straight top fives to begin the year. But after Daytona, Allison’s season became erratic with wins, mechanical breakdowns and pain. Three times Allison ended up in the hospital after a wreck and in May, after he won the inaugural primetime Winston, he celebrated in a hospital bed due to a concussion in a crash with Kyle Petty as they crossed the finish line. Worse befell his family as a whole when his brother Clifford Allison died in an August NASCAR Xfinity Series practice crash at Michigan International Speedway.
Then there was the gut-wrenching conclusion to the championship. After a year of both physical and emotional injury, Allison started the finale as the championship leader, needing a fifth-place finish to get the trophy. If he could do it, It would bookend his year which had started so well at Daytona.
But a wreck on lap 254 with Irvan took him out of the race and ultimately title contention. The hard-luck season ended so differently than how it had begun, but at least it was over and there was always next year. Unfortunately, 1993 would bring greater pain to the Allison family and NASCAR community. Of course that wasn’t clear as the off season began. The optimism and expectations were that Allison was going to return to Daytona, defend his win and start anew. NASCAR’s next great young star and heir apparent to the Allison name was on the rise.
There still seemed so much more promise to come.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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