By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor
After an off weekend for Father’s Day, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series gets back to business this weekend as they get set to take on the first of two road course races on the 2016 schedule. Before the focus turns to Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, we’ll take a step back in the past for this week’s “Throwback Thursday Theater” to the 1995 Save Mart Supermarkets 300 and the lone road course win for a legend.
Taking place on the track’s original configuration of 2.520 miles as compared to today’s configuration of 1.990 miles, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series annual trek to California wine country started with inaugural race winner Ricky Rudd on the pole, with Terry Labonte joining him on the front row.
Rudd would lead the first five laps, but as the field stormed past the start/finish line to start lap six, Rudd’s car slowed abruptly, allowing Mark Martin to take over the lead for the first time. Rudd reported that he thought something had broken in the car, but he was able to get back to full speed shortly thereafter and remained in the top-10.
Meanwhile, Martin was in the lead showing just how dominant he would be on the day, leading until green flag pit stops began at lap 27. Though Ken Schrader took over the lead for a couple of laps while pit stops cycled through, Martin was right back to the lead at lap 29, just prior to the third caution of the day.
At lap 29, Joe Nemechek, who had just made a pit stop under green and was making his way around the track getting back up to speed, had an issue in one of the turns and his No. 87 Chevrolet would up hurdling the tire barrier to land on the opposite side. Nemechek would be OK, but the front end of his car would not be.
“Well, I think it’s the cold tire culprit. I thought I was going slow enough in the corners. We just put on four new tires and I went in the corner and slowed down and all of a sudden the car just kept going straight. I had the wheels cut all the way to the right and it just kept going straight. Once you hit those tires, they’re like little gremlins that come out and bite you and it sent the car up in the air pretty good. I don’t think I hurt any suspension. It just folded the nose back under. The Burger King Monte Carlo has been having a rough week this week. This is the third nose they’ve put on there, so I’m trying my best. I just think I’m trying a little too hard,” said Nemechek.
Martin continued to set the pace at the front of the field once they went back to green, ahead of Dale Earnhardt, who stayed in Martin’s tire tracks for much of the race. After Martin had kept his No. 6 Ford out front for 55 of the first 61 laps, the final caution of the day would break out with 14 laps to go, changing the complexion of the late stages of the race.
The caution would fly at lap 61 as a result of a collision between Rusty Wallace, Davy Jones, and Dale Jarrett. While Wallace and Jones were able to get their cars righted and were able to drive away from the wreck scene in short order, Jarrett got the worst of it, as his No. 28 Ford climbed an embankment on the outside of the right hander and caused his car to tumble over on its side. After a few minutes, safety workers were able to push the car over and Jarrett drove away under his own power.
When the field went back to green with nine laps remaining, Martin pulled away from Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon on the restart, but Earnhardt caught back up to Martin’s rear bumper shortly thereafter and would hound Martin for the next seven laps. Heading through Turns 5 and 6 (the Carousel), Martin slipped a bit and gave Earnhardt the opening he was looking for. In the blink of an eye, Earnhardt was past Martin and into the lead.
Though Martin gave it his all to try and get back into the lead after dominating the day, it was Earnhardt who was able to lead the final two laps en route to his first and only road course win in his illustrious career.
“Well I won at a road course. Maybe I can break the ice and win at Daytona next year. I’ll tell you, Richard (Childress) said he was going to Africa on a little excursion and he did. He said ‘Y’all will probably win the race while I’m gone. If that’s what it takes, I’ll go to Africa every year.’ He’s going to Africa whether he knows it or not for the Daytona 500. This team, Andy, all of us, worked really great. I can’t say enough about the motors and Andy Petree and all of the guys at the shop. They do such a good job. We worked hard. We’ve gotten in a couple of wrecks here lately and we work as hard as we can week in and week out. I don’t know why we haven’t won a road course until now. We’ve been close,” said Earnhardt.
“I sat there behind Mark and ran a real good, smooth race. Everybody that was pressuring me from behind just wasn’t a contender and I could just take care of my tires and move on. Mark could really beat me off of these long corners and the last couple of laps, somebody threw some grease out and that was a little deterrent and he slipped and slid and slipped out on the Carousel and I got under him and that’s all it took. Then I could hold him off. He could slip and spin and try to get back by me and it wasn’t as easy. I just held my line, ran it smooth, and didn’t do much. Just eased her along.”