50 Years of nascar racing ~ By The Time I Get To Phoenix
By Matt McLaughlin
Editor's note: This article is part of a special reprise of Matt McLaughlin's "50 Years of NASCAR Racing", written and published in 1998 in commemoration of NASCAR's 50th Anniversary celebration that year. Matt has kindly granted me permission to run the entire series. Please, sit back and enjoy as you take a journey back through the pages of history and perhaps relive a memory or two. Many thanks to Matt for his generosity in sharing. God bless you, my friend.
Phoenix International Raceway is a relative newcomer to the Winston Cup schedule but it has already produced some memorable events. Coming as the event prior to the grand finale in Atlanta, the outcome at Phoenix has aided the title hopes of some, and dashed the plans of others.
NASCAR's top league returned to Phoenix in 1988, after having not run a race there since the 1960 Grand National event held at the Arizona Fairgrounds. Alan Kulwicki won his first Winston Cup event that day after late race mechanical problems felled Ricky Rudd who had dominated the event in the Quaker State Buick. It was an emotional victory for the 34-year old Wisconsin native who had arrived in the south with everything he owned inside a worn out pickup truck in 1985. All along he had insisted on running his own team, a relative novelty in that era, and the win at Phoenix was his pay back for several years of frustration seeking that elusive victory. To celebrate, he did one of his soon to become trademark "Polish Victory laps", touring the track in the wrong direction. Sadly, the Polish victory lap also came to be how race winners paid tribute to Kulwicki after he lost his life in an aircraft accident while reigning Winston Cup Champion. By finishing fourth to Rusty Wallace's fifth, Bill Elliott managed to carry a comfortable points lead into the Atlanta finale where he wrapped up that year's championship.
Bill Elliott emerged from nowhere to win the 1989 event at Phoenix, but by that point he was out of the title hunt. Rusty Wallace had come into the Phoenix event with a huge points lead, but lost a large part of it after getting tangled up with the lapped car of Stan Barrett, leaving Rusty 16th in the final rundown. Mark Martin finished third and Dale Earnhardt sixth to move within striking distance of Wallace for the championship. Racing in his first Winston Cup race that day was Bobby Hamilton, driving a car prepared by Rick Hendrick and carrying camera equipment to aid in the shooting of "Days Of Thunder" the worst racing movie ever made. Hamilton actually led the event at times and was told over the radio to drop back and run in the pack because they needed some footage of the car running in traffic.
Coincidentally, Earnhardt and Martin came into the 1990 race at Phoenix in a tight battle for the Winston Cup honors. Martin had once had a comfortable point's lead but was in a bit of a slump and Dale was whittling away at it. A questionable pit strategy call had Martin duck into the pits for fresh tires during the last caution flag with 16 laps to go, while Earnhardt and most of the leaders chose to remain on the track. Mark finished tenth, while Earnhardt won the race and took the points lead. To add to Martin's headaches he managed to drive into the back of Ernie Irvan after the race concluded.
Davey Allison won the Phoenix race in the 1991, but the day belonged to Dale Earnhardt. By finishing ninth (and he admitted to running a conservative strategy) Earnhardt all but locked up his fifth Winston Cup championship. All he needed to do was show up at Atlanta and start the race and he would be champion. Dale joked, "I'm going deer hunting. As long as I don't fall out of the tree we should be all right."
But Phoenix had a very different sort of effect on the outcome of the 1992 points championship. After the Dover race in September that year, Bill Elliott seemed to have the title all but in the bag. Unfortunately, at that point his first season with the Junior Johnson team went to pieces, and nowhere were the freak misfortunes more evident than at Phoenix. Junior Johnson engines failed about as often as it snows in Phoenix but that day Bill blew an engine to bite size pieces of junk. Davey Allison took the win and the points lead, 40 points ahead of Elliott, who actually dropped to third in the standings ten points behind Alan Kulwicki who brought the Hooters Ford home fourth.
Sadly, when the Winston Cup regulars returned to Phoenix in 1993, two of the track's favorite sons, inaugural race winner Alan Kulwicki and the only two time winner of the event, Davey Allison, were both gone, the victims of aircraft accidents. That year Dale Earnhardt once again all but assured himself of a Winston Cup championship by finishing fourth at Phoenix. His day was not without drama however. Dale sent Kenny Schrader spinning on the third lap, then got involved in a tangle with Schrader's teammate and Winston Cup Rookie of the year, Jeff Gordon, putting Gordon hard into the wall. Meanwhile, up front Mark Martin and Ernie Irvan, driving the #28 car Allison had made famous, treated the fans to an epic duel. Martin won the race by .17 seconds, the closest finish at Phoenix to date.
More recently, two years ago Phoenix dealt Terry Labonte a bad hand. Literally. A practice crash left Labonte with several broken bones in his left hand, and had Terry not been able to drive it is very likely Jeff Gordon might have won his second straight title. Despite having a hand so swollen it barely looked human, Terry managed to finish third in that event to Gordon's fifth and thus took another big step towards his title. Bobby Hamilton won his first race that day and became the first driver to win for Richard Petty since the King retired from the driver's seat. I guess no one told Hamilton to slow down and fade back into traffic for filming purposes that day.
One off track incident bears repeating as well. A viewer of TBS sent a letter to the network asking if the hillside seating area offered a decent view of the track. In a comment that probably caused then owner Buddy Jobe fits, Buddy Baker commented on the air, "As long as you watch out for the rattle snakes." Rattlesnakes are actually rather shy creatures that avoid humans when they can, and they are not a problem on the hill. It is true however, in the week leading up to the event, workers have to be dispatched to clear the garage area of rattlesnakes who find the dark quiet garage areas between races a perfect habitat. Next to being a body man in Mike Skinner's garage that must be the worst job in racing. At the Phoenix event that year a fan on the hillside held up one of those banners that plays on the networks call letters. It read:
B uddy there's no
Beats "I installed my own faucet this weekend", anyway.
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