With Sonoma Raceway celebrating its 25th season of bring NASCAR’s premiere series to Northern California, lets take a look back at the Sprint Cup (Winston Cup) Series first ever visit to the twisty road course back in 1989.
The Sonoma track was very different 25 years ago. It was then known as Sears Point International Raceway and instead of being a 100-lap affair on a 1.990-mile course as its configured today, the 1989 event was a 74-lap race on a 2.520-mile configuration. Between 1989-1997, NASCAR utilized the carousel and the drag strip. After being reconfigured several times, the raceway created the chute and the cars no longer use the drag strip as the front stretch. The inaugural race was held on June 11th.
Going into the weekend, only a handful of drivers had experience at the track either through racing in NASCAR’s Winston West Series, NASCAR’s Southwest Tour Series or the Bob Bondurant School. The lack of track experience was tough on all of the competitors including Michael Waltrip who flipped in one of the practice sessions. The track seemed to fall into the hands of two of NASCAR’s best road racers of the era, Rusty Wallace who sat on the pole and Ricky Rudd who started fourth.
From the start of the race it was apparent that unless they faced bad luck, the race for the victory would be decided between Wallace and Rudd. Mark Martin and Bill Elliott both showed good speed but neither one seemed to have what it took to seriously contend with Wallace’s 27 Pontiac or Rudd’s 26 Buick.
There was a dust up in turn two on the opening lap that damaged the cars of several competitors, namely Terry Labonte but the first 39 circuits of the race were run without serious incident. The first run made it clear that Wallace and Rudd would be the dominant cars as both were able to run away from the competition. Wallace led the first 10 laps while Rudd took over from lap 11 through 18. Elliott led for three laps during green flag stops before Rudd regained the lead. He would not lose that position for the rest of the race.
The most serious/memorable incident from this race came at the expense of Martin. During a yellow flag stop, Martin’s crew did not get all of his lugnuts tightened. When Martin exited the pits and drove into turn one, a tire came loose sending him spinning into a tire barrier and flipping his car over. Martin was not hurt and his car was not seriously damaged but the incident cost him a chance at getting a top five finish.
The last 20 laps featured the kind of racing that made NASCAR famous. There was tough racing between Rudd and Wallace. Both drivers slug their cars back and fourth through the corners with Wallace trying to find a line by Rudd for the lead. A caution period with seven laps to go halted the action but the two resumed their battle in the final four laps.
At one point, Wallace got alongside Rudd coming off turn seven and going into the esses but he and Rudd touched with Wallace going into the grass and losing his momentum. That incident was enough for Rudd to hold on and take the win on what was the 100th race for Kenny Bernstein’s Cup race. Rudd led 61 laps of the event while Wallace led 10.
Elliott placed third and the only other driver to lead the race. Dale Earnhardt had a solid run in fourth and briefly challenged Rudd for the lead but was unable to get five bonus points. Lake Speed had an impressive race, coming from 26th to finish fifth, his best run in 1989. Speed was one of the drivers who was forced to stop during the first lap incident which cost him valuable track position but was able to recover nicely. Rookie of the Year contender, Dick Trickle had issues and placed 30th.