It’s not often that NASCAR takes away a win from a driver that crossed the finish line first. In NASCAR’s Modern Era, the sanctioning body has only taken that step twice: Back in 2008 at Talladega, when Regan Smith passed Tony Stewart below the yellow line to win and 26 years ago at Sonoma Raceway, site of this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.
With that in mind, the 1991 Banquet Frozen Foods 300 and the controversial finish that ensued will be the focus of this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”.
Ricky Rudd would start the event on the pole, a familiar place for “The Rooster”, who had started on pole a year earlier on the winding California road course. Terry Labonte started alongside him on the front row.
When the green flag dropped, Rudd took off with the lead and would stay out front for the first 11 laps, which included the first caution of the day at lap 4 when R.K. Smith had an off track excursion in his No. 09 Pontiac in Turn 5.
Rusty Wallace, who started the day in fourth and was the defending champion of the race, took over at lap 12 and would show that he had one of the cars to beat, leading 45 of the next 48 laps before the fourth caution flew at lap 60 for the cars of Morgan Shepherd and Mike Chase being stalled out in Turn 2.
On the ensuing restart, a new contender would emerge in Tommy Kendall, who was driving the No. 42 car in relief of an injured Kyle Petty.
When Wallace, Rudd, and some of the other leaders came down pit road under caution, Kendall would inherit the lead, with a handful of lapped cars between himself and Wallace when the green flag came back out. Kendall would easily pull away with the lead, but it was only two laps before the fifth and final caution of the day would come out for a hard crash by Richard Petty in Turn 1 on lap 64.
Heading into Turn 1, Petty appeared to lock up the brakes, causing his car to keep going straight, head-on into a tire barrier and a concrete wall, causing heavy damage to Petty’s No. 43 car. Petty could be seen moving around in the car, but it would be several more tense minutes before Petty would climb from his car with assistance from the safety workers tending to him and gingerly walked to a waiting ambulance.
Kyle Petty, who was on scene with the safety workers, talked to his father while he was still in the car and got an explanation of what happened to cause the crash.
“He said he hit some oil, coming through this corner,” said Kyle Petty. “His car got out from under him when he got on the brakes and he popped a tire and he hit this wall and tore his car all to pieces.”
Once the race went back green after Petty’s crash, Kendall was quick to pull away with the lead, with Mark Martin following behind in second. Wallace, who had one of the more dominant cars on the day, was struggling with a misfiring engine on his No. 2 car, taking him out of contention for the win.
With four laps to go, Kendall and Martin were battling for the race lead, when contact between the two sent Martin spinning into the guardrail lining the track at Turn 7. Kendall looked like he had the race in the bag at that point, but shortly after the contact with Martin, he would cut a tire down, allowing Davey Allison to take over the race lead.
As Allison held the lead with Rudd running right in his tire tracks, the two came into the hairpin Turn 11 just before taking the white flag when Rudd drove in deep, making contact with Allison, sending him for a spin.
Rudd moved into the lead as a result of Allison getting spun and would lead the final two laps, crossing the finish line first, while Allison gathered his car up and came across in second place.
So, Ricky Rudd had won at Sonoma for the second time in three years, right? Well, not so fast.
When Rudd crossed the finish line at the end of the race, he was shown the black flag, disqualifying him from being scored that lap and Allison was actually the first to take the checkered flag, handing him the win in one of the most controversial calls in NASCAR history.
Needless to say, Rudd and his crew were not happy with the call that the sanctioning body had made by taking the win away from them and said as much after the race.
“I don’t understand this,” said Rudd’s crew chief, Waddell Wilson. “I’ve been racing since 1963 and this is about one of the darndest calls I’ve seen made in a long time. You know, they’ve told us in the driver’s meeting, the last lap, you’re on your own. But Ricky was not driving dirty. He touched him, sure, but they’re in a hairpin turn and I could have pushed the No. 28 car around with my hand. But it would have been reversed and wouldn’t have made a difference. These guys are out here trying to win the race and it comes down to the last lap and you’ve got to be able to race.”
“If they’re going to take this away from us, this is totally wrong. I’ve seen it happen time and time again through the years and they’ve never taken a race from anyone yet doing this. If they do this, this is rotten.”
“It was an accident,” said Rudd. “I got into Davey. It was my fault. He was the lead car and I got into him, but I didn’t get the black flag until the white flag lap. I don’t know. I’m just fed up with this mess.”
While Rudd and his crew were irate over the call, Allison and his crew were preparing to celebrate in victory lane and Allison’s crew chief noted that NASCAR made the right call.
“I don’t see how it can be any confusion,” said Larry McReynolds. “I worked with Ricky Rudd for two years and that ain’t Ricky Rudd’s style. If they let him get by with that, then I ain’t got a whole lot to say about NASCAR’s procedures. The No. 28 car, Texaco-Havoline Ford won the race and that’s the way it is.”
Likewise, Allison was all smiles in victory lane to celebrate his first career road course win.
“I can’t say enough about Larry McReynolds and all these guys on this crew,” said Allison. “Robert Yates and all the guys in the engine shop just give me everything I need. We just went out there and we drove our guts out today and it’s a shame what happened right there on the next to last lap down there in Turn 11. The justification came out in the end and we’re tickled to death to be here in victory lane for the second time this season. We’re going to get some more.”
“I drove into Turn 11 and next thing I know, somebody just plowed into the back of me and turned me around. I just stuck it in first gear and took off and kept going. They came back and they said they were going to penalize him for a stop and go because it was obviously deliberate.”