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June 7, 2024

NASCAR Classics: Races to watch before Sonoma

NASCAR Cup Series cars race at Sonoma in 1995.
NASCAR Research & Archives Center
Getty Images

Throughout the 2024 NASCAR season, Ken Martin, director of historical content for the sanctioning body, will offer his suggestions on which historical races fans should watch from the NASCAR Classics library in preparation for each upcoming race weekend.

Martin has worked exclusively for NASCAR since 2008 but has been involved with the sport since 1982, overseeing various projects. He has worked in the broadcast booth for hundreds of races, assisting the broadcast team with different tasks. This includes calculating the “points as they run” for the historic 1992 finale, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The following suggestions are Ken’s picks to watch before this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

1991 Banquet Frozen Foods 300:

Ricky Rudd arrived at Sonoma for the 1991 edition of the race as quite possibly the driver to watch.

Rudd won the inaugural race at the track in 1989 in dominating fashion, leading 61 of the race’s 74 laps. His victory was backed up in 1990 with another strong showing, as he led 13 laps and finished third. He also sat second in the points standings in 1991, less than 100 points behind Dale Earnhardt.

It was no surprise that Rudd went out in qualifying and put his bright orange No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports on the pole for the race.

Rusty Wallace, who seemingly had just as much success at Sonoma as Rudd, took the lead on the 12th lap of the race. Wallace finished second to Rudd in the inaugural race at the track and followed it up with a victory in 1990.

Wallace looked to be in control of the race as the laps passed by, leading throughout most of the afternoon before his car lost a cylinder with less than 10 laps remaining.

Tommy Kendall, who was subbing in the No. 42 car for an injured Kyle Petty, was leading the race with four laps remaining when his chance at the victory disappeared as well.

The No. 42 car made contact with Mark Martin, sending Martin around and into the tire barriers. This allowed Davey Allison and Rudd to power past the ailing car of Kendall and inherit the lead.

This set up a dramatic and controversial finish between the two drivers.

Rudd quickly extinguished the gap between him and the rear of Allison’s No. 28 car, as the two came to take the white flag.

He proceeded to make contact with Allison’s bumper, sending the No. 28 car spinning, as Rudd looked poised for a trip to Victory Lane.

Instead of being shown the checkered flag, Rudd was shown the black flag for his on-track actions. His Hendrick Motorsports crew was visibly in disagreement with the call in the pits.

Allison, who quickly recovered from his spin, was in second place at the time but took the checkered flag and the victory. Rudd was credited with a second-place finish.

Davey Allison looks on.
NASCAR Research & Archives Center | Getty Images

1995 Save Mart Supermarkets 300:

It was well known that Dale Earnhardt had accomplished just about everything in his career, especially after capturing his seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship in 1994.

Two things eluded him in his career, his well-documented heartbreaks in taking the checkered flag in the Daytona 500 and a win on a road course.

The Kannapolis, North Carolina driver wasn’t known for his road-course prowess, but he was statistically always a threat to win.

He had the best average finish on road courses in the Cup Series from 1979 to 1990, out of all 46 drivers who made eight-plus starts over that span. His 10.2 average finish over that span was better than Mark Martin’s 11.2, Ricky Rudd’s 11.5, Tim Richmond’s 11.6 and Bobby Allison’s 11.7.

Earnhardt could always be found near the front of the field at Sonoma. He finished fourth in the inaugural race at the track in 1989. From 1991 to 1994, he racked up finishes of seventh, sixth, sixth and third.

He would fittingly be the first to mention that the only lap that pays money is the last one, so it was fitting that his first road-course triumph came in the final moments.

Earnhardt passed Martin with two laps remaining and held on for the checkered flag.

Martin, another road course ace, led 66 of the race’s 74 laps and came home second.

Dale Earnhardt drives at Sonoma.
Getty Images

2010 Toyota/Save Mart 350:

Marcos Ambrose had already established himself as a threat every time he battled the twists and turns of any road course on the schedule but had yet to conquer the entire Cup Series field. He did have two Xfinity Series victories to his name, with both coming at Watkins Glen in 2008 and 2009.

Ambrose found himself battling four-time defending Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson for the victory at Sonoma in 2010.

The two drivers combined to lead 90 of the 110 laps, as Ambrose was in control of the field as the caution flag came out with seven laps remaining for an incident involving the No. 12 car of Brad Keselowski.

Ambrose was attempting to save fuel under caution and cut his engine off under caution. His car did not immediately turn back on and he lost the lead, as his car did not meet minimum speed under yellow.

Johnson held off Robby Gordon and Kevin Harvick to capture the checkered flag. Ambrose finished a disappointing sixth.

Marcos Ambrose and Jimmie Johnson race at Sonoma.
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

You can watch these three races and hundreds more by visiting NASCAR Classics.