Most of Bill Elliott’s 1989 season was spent on the mend, both physically and competitively.
Although he has two wins coming into the Nov. 5 Autoworks 500 NASCAR Winston Cup race at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway, Elliott would be among the first to tell you the season was far from spectacular. He had lost time in preparation and testing with a broken left wrist sustained at Daytona Beach, Fla., in February, and he and his Melling/Coors team had consequently become among the last to solve the intricacies of the 1989 Ford Thunderbird.
But toward the end of the season, Elliott seemed to find his stride. He proved that when the door of opportunity opened at Phoenix and entered to win his third race of the year.
The “opportunity” came when Rusty Wallace, the Winston Cup point leader who was bidding to earn the ’89 title at Phoenix, became involved in an accident with the part-time driver Stan Barrett in turn one on lap 255.
Wallace had led 76 laps until that point. He had given up his lead – and at times it was an impressive lead – when he made a put stop for four tires and gas under the green flag. But on lap 254 of the 312-lap race, he got it back when the last of his challengers was forced to do the same thing. Once again in command, Wallace was ready to set sail.
Unfortunately for him, Barrett, who said the brakes were gone in his Junie Donlavey-owned Ford, clipped the rear end of his Kodiak Pontiac. Wallace made four stops for repairs but finished 16th, one lap down.
Wallace’s mishap brought out the fifth and final caution period. When the green flag flew on lap 263, Darrell Waltrip was the new leader in his Tide Chevrolet, followed by Elliott and Mark Martin in the Stroh’s Light Ford.
On lap 265, Elliott passed Waltrip to take the lead, with Martin following. On lap 291, Labonte slipped by Martin to take second place. But no one would head Elliott off.
“All I know is that after starting 13th, I didn’t think it would be a good day,” said Elliott. “’I didn’t think the car would handle like it should. But we changed things all day and the track came to us. Then when our final opportunity to win the race came along, we took it.”
Labonte tried valiantly to catch Elliott, but couldn’t do it. At the finish, he was two car lengths in arrears. Martin finished third, Waltrip fourth and Dale Jarrett fifth in the Hardee’s Pontiac.
Martin’s third-place finish propelled him into second place in the point standings as the season wound down to its final event, the Nov. 19 Atlanta Journal 500. He was 78 points behind leader Wallace (4,058-3,980) while Dale Earnhardt fell to third, just 79 points in arrears. Thus, a three-way fight for the title would be staged in Atlanta.
-Winston Cup Illustrated (February 1990)