HAMPTON, Ga. - Sunday's NAPA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the final race for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series of the year. Of the decade. Of the century. And of the millennium.
A thousand years from now, the event will be book-marked in the sport's history as a milestone, much like the first NASCAR race on June 19, 1949, at Charlotte, N.C. By then, stock cars likely will have been replaced by spaceships - some with Chevrolet logos, some with Ford and even a few with Pontiac and Chrysler nameplates.
Compared to racing's eternal timeline, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series is a neophyte. But while the series is just 51 years old, the sport has managed to cram a millennium full of highlights into a very short period of time.
Who knew on June 19, 1949, that NASCAR eventually would evolve into the biggest, most-powerful form of auto racing on the planet by the turn of the century?
Who could comprehend a newly signed, six-year $2.8 billion television deal that officially will make NASCAR No. 2 in television's financial food chain?
Since that first race, won by Jim Roper aboard a Lincoln, to the millennium finale at the truly modern Atlanta Motor Speedway, drivers have logged more than a million racing miles. And between the first and final race of the 20th century, fans have been treated to all the emotions of life itself - happiness, grief, anticipation, fear, relief, thrill and, most important, desire.
Fathers have won on the circuit, followed by their sons and their son's sons. Cars have been upside-down, backwards, on fire, airborne and drenched with winner's champagne. And they've been faster than any imagination.
The century will close out by celebrating tradition in Dale Jarrett's NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship and the future in three victories by rookie Tony Stewart. Jarrett's father, Ned, won a pair of NASCAR titles. Stewart, most feel, will make his legacy in the new century.
The first car to qualify quicker than 100 mph was Tim Flock's Lincoln in 1951 at the old beach race course at Daytona Beach, Fla. The first car to average more than 100 mph in victory was Cotton Owens, who drove a Pontiac to a victory on the beach course at Daytona Beach in 1957.
The first 200-mph qualifier was Benny Parsons in a Pontiac at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 1982. The fastest race during the century was Mark Martin's victory at Talladega in 1997 - a 500-mile drive that averaged 188.354 mph.
The most successful driver during the century was Richard Petty. He won 200 times, including his final win at Daytona Beach in 1984 with President Ronald Reagan in the grandstands.
The richest driver during the century was Dale Earnhardt, who stockpiled nearly $37 million in the last 25 years.
The most successful champions of the century were Petty and Earnhardt. Both have been crowned as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion seven times.
The fastest driver of the decade was Bill Elliott. His Ford Thunderbird was clocked at 212.809 mph at Talladega in 1987.
Elliott also earns the unofficial title as the most popular. Officially, he was voted by fans as the Most Popular Driver 13 times. And who knows, when the sport celebrates the 1999 season next month at the NASCAR Awards Banquet, Elliott may earn his 14th Most Popular Driver honor.
The best race, however, is a debate without a single answer. But the list is likely to include the some of the following:
Lee Petty's victory at the 1959 Daytona 500. Petty, Johnny Beachcamp and Charley Griffith all crossed the finish line together, and it took NASCAR a day to examine the photo finish to declare a winner.
Elliott's victory at the Talladega Superspeedway in 1985 when he rallied under the green flag from a 4.5-mile deficit.
Elliott's win at the Darlington (S.C.) Speedway in 1985 that earned him a $1 million bonus from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and the nickname "Million Dollar Bill."
Alan Kulwicki's clockwise "Polish Victory" lap at the Phoenix International Raceway in 1988.
Elliott's race victory, Kulwicki's championship victory and the last race for Richard Petty - all in the same day at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992.
Bobby Allison fending off a last-lap challenge from his son, Davey Allison, to win the 1988 Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt's first - and only - win in the Daytona 500 after being unsuccessful in the sport's biggest race during the previous 19 years.
David Pearson's win at the 1976 Daytona 500 after surviving a crash with Petty 500 yards short of the finish line.
Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough crashing on the final lap of 1979 Daytona 500, which allowed Petty to win. Allison and Yarborough climbed from their cars in the third turn and started fighting, only to be joined in the melee by Bobby Allison.
Richard Petty being denied his first career win in 1958 following a successful protest by another driver - his father, Lee Petty.
The century has seen the sport grow from its Southern roots to a world-wide stage. Once a Saturday night staple in most small towns, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series now is the second-biggest sport in the United States, although it has maintained most of its Southern traditions and charm.
Only the National Football League has better numbers - in person and on television.
Live network cameras made their debut during the 1979 Daytona 500 and the Allison brothers-Yarborough fight seemed to turn the most casual fan into a racing zealot. Now, every race is broadcast on television and has a worldwide radio audience that includes several hundred outlets.
The stars and cars for the new millennium are faster and seemingly more daring than the 20th century. The sport obviously continues to race in the right direction. The industry now measures its success in both millions (of fans) and billions (in revenues).
"I don't know what I'd like to do more: win the final race of the millennium or the first race of the new millennium," said driver Geoffrey Bodine. "As a driver, I want to win both. Then, 1,000 years from now, race fans can find my name in a history book."
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