Photo: Sonoma Raceway

Throwback Thursday Theater: NASCAR Roars Into California Wine Country

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

When Riverside International Raceway was shuttered following the 1988 season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series was forced to look for another road course venue to replace it on the schedule.

Officials didn’t have to look far as Sonoma Raceway, a winding 12-turn, 2.52-mile course in Northern California fit the bill and was added to the 1989 schedule with the running of the Banquet Frozen Foods 300.

From the start of the weekend, the track proved treacherous, with Michael Waltrip flipping in practice and the field getting wadded up on the very first lap of the event, damaging several cars, including those of Terry Labonte and others. The incident did not cause a caution and the field was able to keep running under green.

While that was going on, pole sitter Rusty Wallace took command of the race, leading the first 10 circuits in his No. 27 Pontiac before being passed by the other road course ace of the day, Ricky Rudd, who would lead the next eight laps before green flag pit stops began.

As green flag pit stops were taking place, 1988 series champion Bill Elliott was able to lead three laps before Rudd re-assumed the lead on lap 22 and would not give it up for the remainder of the 74 lap event.

The race was only slowed for three cautions, with the first for oil on track at lap 40 and the second for a car stalled on track.

While the second caution wasn’t anything major to begin with, it quickly escalated that way as there was a mix-up during Mark Martin’s pit stop. With Martin only thinking the team was taking fuel only and the team planning to change tires, he left his pit stall with the lug nuts not installed on the right rear wheel, which spelled disaster once he got back on track.

As Martin headed up the hill after leaving pit road, the wheel came off his No. 6 car, sending him spinning into the tire barrier, causing the car to flip over onto the roof. Martin was OK, climbing out under his own power before he took off running back to pit road to find out what happened in the incident.

“I left the pits here and the rear wheel fell off,” a dejected Martin said after the wreck. “The car flew out of control and got on the tires and flipped and turned upside-down. It wasn’t a bad deal, just an easy roll, but real unfortunate for the Stroh’s Light team. We weren’t supposed to change any tires and we were just going to gas and go and that’s what we did, but somehow the nuts got taken off the rear.”

The team did get his car repaired and he was able to continue in the race following the incident.

When the field went back to green, Rudd held onto the lead over Wallace, with the two dueling for the lead and the win for the remainder of the race.

Rudd looked to have the race in the bag before a late caution came out on lap 67 of 75 for a wreck involving the No. 38 of Dick Johnson, giving Wallace one final shot at Rudd after a restart with four laps to go.

The two got side-by-side through the Carousel, with Wallace getting forced off of the track, allowing Rudd to scoot away with the lead. Through the remaining three laps, Wallace drove the wheels off of his machine in an effort to catch back up with Rudd and although he tried all he could to get by Rudd, it was not enough as Rudd would go on to win the second race for owner Kenny Bernstein of NHRA fame. The win was also the 10th of Rudd’s career.

Rudd and Wallace were followed to the finish by Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Lake Speed, Joe Ruttman, Morgan Shepherd, Rick Wilson, Davey Allison, and Michael Waltrip.

“I’ll tell you, Rusty does a heck of a good job on the road course,” Rudd said after the race. “Mark Martin drove an excellent race, I know they had some trouble, but I knew Rusty was going to give me a fit. He wore my back bumper out at Watkins Glen, so I knew it was coming and I knew where it was coming.

“I didn’t expect him to drive around me on the outside. He had a little bit better brakes and I didn’t expect him to be on the outside of me, but all of a sudden I looked up and there he was. I wasn’t quite expecting that, I thought he was going to give me a shot getting into the corner and he didn’t. He drove around the outside and I used up all of the race track and he found the dirt and we found victory lane.”

After falling short of victory to Rudd for a second time at the road courses, Wallace was still all smiles after the race.

“Well, I got alongside of him and just kind of ran out of room,” Wallace said of his off-track excursion late in the race. “He drove a good race. I want to congratulate him for what he did. There was a lot of close racing and that’s the way I like to do it if it takes a little paint swapping to try and win the race.

“I knew where I had to try and pass him at. I knew going into that last turn was the spot where I had to get it done because he was the weakest there, and he knew he was the weakest. We were listening in on the scanners and he was saying ‘I know he’s going to get me here’. So I went to the outside to get there alongside of him and we just ran out of room. I got in the grass and he got on the track and everything was good. Like I said, I want to congratulate him, they did an excellent job and this was the most fun race I think I’ve run in a long time.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.