After the crash at Dover, Kulwicki rallied over the next few races to get back into championship contention. He earned three top fives in five races and never finished worse than 12th. Meanwhile, Elliott had several bad finishes and lost the points lead to Allison in the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix. Heading into the final race of the year, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Allison led Kulwicki by a slim margin of 30 points. Elliott was an additional 10 points behind Kulwicki. Embracing the task before him, Kulwicki got permission from Ford to remove the letters T and H from the word “THUNDERBIRD” on the front bumper of his Atlanta car, so it instead spelled “UNDERBIRD.”
Kulwicki was one of six drivers who entered the Atlanta race with a mathematical chance to win the title, but he, Elliott, and Allison were the primary contenders. In addition to featuring the tight championship battle, the Hooters 500 would be Richard Petty’s final race before he retired from NASCAR. The race was also the first time that Jeff Gordon competed in NASCAR’s top division.
After starting the race in 14th, Kulwicki ran into trouble when his transmission malfunctioned after an early pit stop, causing him to lose first gear. Knowing a full-blown transmission failure would cost him the championship, Kulwicki took a conservative approach to the race, running just fast enough to keep the leaders in his sights. By lap 210 of the 328-lap race, he had driven into the lead. When Allison got collected in a crash on lap 253, the championship battle effectively came down to Kulwicki and AK Racing against Elliott and Junior Johnson.
Once out front, Kulwicki, Andrews, and Lawson determined that they should hold the lead for as long as possible to earn five extra bonus points for being the driver to lead the most laps in the race. Kulwicki maintained his lead over Elliott until making his final pit stop on lap 310, taking only fuel. The No. 7 crew had been so intent on getting Kulwicki out of the pits as fast as possible that they were not certain they had given him enough fuel to finish the race!
Elliott pitted from the lead on lap 314 and took over the lead again two laps later. Kulwicki’s crew calculated that Elliott could only lead a maximum of 102 laps, one less than the 103 that Kulwicki already led. With the lap leader bonus secured, Kulwicki saved enough fuel to finish second in the race to Elliott.
Despite losing the race, Kulwicki still emerged as the champion. Elliott earned 180 points: 175 for winning, plus five for leading during the race. By finishing second, Kulwicki earned 170 points plus 10 for leading the most laps, also giving him 180. As a result, Kulwicki held the 10-point advantage he had over Elliott at the beginning of the race, which allowed Kulwicki to win the Winston Cup. In celebration of his championship, Kulwicki performed his signature Polish Victory Lap before the crowd at Atlanta.
In December 1992, NASCAR honored Kulwicki during its annual championship banquet in New York City. The festivities included a presentation of photos from his life and career. At Kulwicki’s request, Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” accompanied the presentation.
By February 1993, Kulwicki had begun a new season, ready to defend his championship. Tragically, he never got the chance.