Rusty Wins It All
by Tom Jensen October 28, 2022
After coming close a year earlier, Rusty Wallace put it all together to become a NASCAR champion in 1989.
In the summer of 2019, the NASCAR Hall of Fame enlisted Dale Earnhardt Jr. as our guest curator for the fourth iteration of Glory Road, which would be on display for three full years, starting in January 2020.
When we spoke with Earnhardt, he said he wanted to see only premier series championship cars in the Glory Road exhibit. We took Earnhardt’s advice and assembled 19 cars from 15 drivers who collectively won 46 of the first 71 premier series championships. We then titled the exhibit “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions.”
Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., two seven-time champions from the inaugural Hall of Fame Class of 2010, each were represented by their first and last championship cars. So was fellow seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who will be eligible for induction in 2024. Twelve other title-winning cars of past NASCAR champions rounded out Glory Road.
Hard to believe, but time is nearly up for the “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit, which will leave the Hall of Fame in early January.
With that impending deadline approaching, today’s blog post features Rusty Wallace’s championship Pontiac Grand Prix from 1989.
A member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013, Wallace already was a rising star in NASCAR in the 1980s, having won rookie of the year honors in 1984, and finishing fifth in points in 1987 before narrowly losing the championship to fellow Hall of Fame Bill Elliott (2015) a year later.
In 1989, while driving for car owner Raymond Beadle, Wallace had a year that was slightly worse statistically than the season he had in ’88, when he was runner-up to Elliott. Wallace won six races in 1989, the same as he did a year earlier, but his top-five finishes fell from 19 to 13, his top 10s decreased from 23 to 20 and his DNFs increased from two in 1988 to four in 1989.
That said, Wallace started off the ’89 season hot, winning three of the first six races, earning victories at Rockingham, Richmond and Bristol, three smaller tracks where he excelled.
Then controversy erupted in a big way. On the penultimate lap of The Winston, NASCAR’s big-dollar all-star event at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, Wallace sent leader Darrell Waltrip spinning coming out of Turn 4 while heading to the white flag. Wallace won the race and the $200,000 first-place purse, but the two crews got into a massive brawl in the garage that required police intervention to break up.
“I hope Rusty chokes on that $200,000. He knocked the hell out of me,” Waltrip famously said of Wallace after the race. The incident created a fan backlash against Wallace that carried on through much of the summer.
I hope Rusty chokes on that $200,000. He knocked the hell out of me.
— Darrell Waltrip
The criticism stung Wallace.
“I’ll tell anyone, I don’t like to hear the boos,” Wallace told Shav Glick of the Los Angeles Times. “I can’t believe that one little bumping can change one guy (Waltrip) from a jerk to a good guy, and another guy, me, from a good guy to a jerk.”
Controversy or not, there was still racing to do. After going more than four months without a victory after the three early season wins, Wallace got back to Victory Lane in mid-August, capturing successive wins on the Watkins Glen road course and at Michigan.
The Watkins Glen race began a streak of 10 consecutive finishes of eighth or better for Wallace. The Missouri driver took over the points lead with five races to go and held on to win the title by 8 points over Dale Earnhardt. This despite Wallace ending the ’89 season with finishes of 16th at Phoenix and 15th at Atlanta. Along with the title, Wallace posted then-record earnings of $2,237,950.
Wallace and team owner Raymond Beadle had an acrimonious falling out the following season, with Beadle leaving the sport at the end of the year never to return. Happily for Wallace, in 1992, he teamed up with Hall of Fame team owner Roger Penske, who he would drive for until his retirement following the 2005 season. Wallace scored 37 of his 55 career race victories while driving for Penske, and the two racers remaining close friends to this day.
Although Wallace enjoyed great success with Penske, including a 10-win season in 1993, his lone premier series championship came behind the wheel of the No. 27 Pontiac, which will be on Glory Road until the first week of January 2023.