By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads into Phoenix for the second race of the West Coast swing. In this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”, we take a look back to the race that started it all in the Valley of the Sun, the 1988 Checker 500.
As the series headed into Phoenix in November of 1988, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace were locked in a championship battle that had seen Wallace gaining on Elliott’s lead over the last quarter of the season, with the two separated by just 79 points following Wallace’s win at Rockingham the week before.
Geoffrey Bodine and Wallace would lead the field to green for the inaugural 312 lap event and while Bodine would take the advantage on the start, leading the first two circuits, Wallace would soon take over the lead to set the early pace.
Through the first 72 laps of the event, Wallace led the lion’s share, leading 56 laps, while Neil Bonnett, Alan Kulwicki, and Sterling Marlin also took turns at the front of the field. That first segment of the race also brought out the first four cautions of the event. The first was for oil on the track on lap 15, while a spin by Jimmy Means and Derrike Cope brought out the caution at lap 24. Gary Collins was involved in a single car spin on lap 44 and the fourth caution of the day came as a result of Joe Ruttman and Dale Earnhardt spinning on lap 65.
Following the Earnhardt/Ruttman spin, Ricky Rudd was the next to take his turn up front, leading the next 51 laps of the race. As the race stayed under green, green flag pit stops began, with the lead swapping between Rudd, Mike Alexander, Kulwicki, and then back to Wallace before the yellow flag flew once more on lap 150 for oil on the track.
After that caution period, Rudd had reassumed the lead, but the race stayed green for just two laps prior to the final caution of the day, which incidentally was the biggest of the day, a seven car pileup on the frontstretch that even saw one of the cars catch fire. However, teams ran to their rescue quickly and got the fire contained. In total the cars of Bill Schmitt, Rick Wilson, Mark Martin, Michael Waltrip, Johnny Rutherford, Roy Smith, and Greg Sacks were all involved.
Over the final 136 laps, Rudd would look like the man to beat as he continued to lead through lap 237 before another round of green flag pit stops got underway. Rudd’s stop would hand the lead over to Kulwicki for a 12 lap stint before Rudd took back over the lead at lap 251.
As the laps wound down, Rudd held a comfortable lead over Kulwicki, but the race leader began to suffer engine overheating issues nearing the 300 mile mark. Rudd’s engine finally gave up with just 16 laps to go sending him to the garage and handing the lead back over to Kulwicki.
Kulwicki would lead those final 16 laps en route to his first Winston Cup win and making him the first Cup Series driver to win at Phoenix. With the win, Kulwicki would christen his legendary “Polish Victory Lap”, in which he drove backwards around the track to salute the fans.
“It was a great day for us,” said Kulwicki. “The Goodyear tires did work good for us all day, we had a couple of flats, but we came back. The crew did a good job, and Paul Anderson and Randy Andrews, Bob Sutton, and all the guys on the crew really deserve a lot of credit. That victory lap there was something I had thought about for a long time and I wanted to do something special. There will never be another first win and I just wanted to give them something to remember me by.”
As far as the points battle, Elliott and Wallace left Phoenix right where they started, separated by 79 points as the series headed off to Atlanta for the final race of the 1988 season.