NASCAR racing and Thanksgiving weekend go together like peanut butter and mustard nowadays. It’s been like that since Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon won his fourth and final Cup Series championship, but NASCAR thought it had put an end to the late November race many years ago.
It took truly unique and tragic circumstances for this to happen for the first time in 27 years.
The 1974 NASCAR season ended three days after Thanksgiving
The modern era of NASCAR, which began in 1972, has cleaned up many aspects of the sport, including moving away from many shorter tracks and eliminating a third of the races from the schedule. This ended the common practice of concluding the racing season in December.
This is not to say that everything went smoothly, and the 1974 season was a typical example starting with half of the races being shortened by 10% due to the oil embargo beginning in late 1973. This season also led to a new points system that allowed David Pearson to finish third in the standings despite only competing in 19 of the 30 races. In another twist, NASCAR has tackled a new race to the schedule five weeks after the supposed end to the schedule.
That race, the Los Angeles Times 500, ended with Bobby Allison taking the checkered flag three days after Thanksgiving. However, Richard Petty won the season championship with a comfortable margin of 5,037.75-4,470.3 over Cale Yarborough.
Jeff Gordon completed his fourth title season the day after Thanksgiving
Twenty-seven years after Bobby Allison’s victory at Ontario Motor Speedway, NASCAR experienced what it likely hopes will be its last post-Thanksgiving race. On November 23, 2001, Robby Gordon won the New Hampshire 300 over Sterling Marlin and Bobby Labonte.
Although he finished 15th that day after starting on pole, Jeff Gordon walked away with his fourth Cup Series victory, passing Tony Stewart in points, 5112-4.763. In fact, Gordon clinched the crown the previous weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
As was the case in 1974, the final race was not originally scheduled to be the final race. However, the circumstances in 2001 were completely different.
On September 11, 2001, three days after Ricky Rudd’s victory at Richmond International Raceway, terrorists hijacked four jetliners. Three of them crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, and the other crashed to the ground in Pennsylvania. The horrific attack brought the country to a halt, and NASCAR postponed its September 16th race in Loudon, New Hampshire.
Because there were no open dates left in the original schedule, NASCAR moved the New Hampshire race to the end of the season, five days after Atlanta.
Other lasting memories from the 2001 season
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More than anything else, fans will remember the 2001 NASCAR Cup Series season as the season that began with the death of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a wreck on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Kevin Harvick replaced The Intimidator in the Richard Childress Racing lineup. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors with two wins and a ninth-place finish in points.
Anyone sitting through the just-ended 2022 season will be interested to know that 2001 set a Cup Series record with 19 drivers winning races. Among the first-timers were Harvick, Michael Waltrip (at the Daytona 500), and Robby Gordon. Despite being winless in three games, future seven-time Series champion Jimmie Johnson made his Cup Series debut.
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