Ikens Korner:/I Rusty And Bristol Shine

Anything short of a three-wide finish, with at least two of the cars on their roofs, would've been a letdown, given last year's strong-armed robbery at Bristol.

Last year, when Dale Earnhardt drop-kicked Terry Labonte and had half of East Tennessee looking for rope and a thick limb, two things were accomplished: (1) It cemented Bristol's spot in NASCAR's pecking order -- which, as anybody who pays attention knows, is right at the top when it comes to pure entertainment; and (2) It signaled the official return of an old stock-car warhorse (Earnhardt), who was none too subtle in reminding us he'd do darn near anything to win an automobile race.

This year's Bristol-after-dark edition, unlike last year, didn't have the folks buzzing around the water cooler down at the factory, or in the checkout line at Piggly-Wiggly. But it had similar effects as the 1999 race: (1) After a rash (a good word, if you ask me) of races that would barely rival the WNBA for excitement, it was a nice break from the Michigans and Sears Points and Daytonas; and (2) It signaled the continued resurgence of another marquee veteran, this time Rusty Wallace.

Wallace's victory Saturday night in Bristol's high-banked bowl of banging was his fourth win of the year, the 53rd of his career, his ninth at Bristol, and his third in the night race, a high-profile event absolutely made for high-profile Rusty Wallace.

You can look long and hard through the garage, along the starting grid, and even the overpriced-motorcoach area, and you won't find a man who enjoys being a driver more than Wallace. Every day at the track, for Wallace, seems like the first day of Little League for a 9-year-old -- you halfway expect to discover he sleeps in his uniform.

On top of all that excitement is a heaping helping of pride. He can rattle off his career numbers as easily as his increasingly impressive stats for the 2000 season. Though he smiled a lot, it didn't take Dick Tracy to figure out that, in the overall scheme of things, Rusty hated being relegated to the fringes of contention in the late-1990s while men like Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin passed him, and Jeff Gordon lapped him.

Rusty Wallace is probably too far back (fifth place, 290 points) to contend for his second Winston Cup championship, but in a season defined by parity, he's earning more headlines than anyone -- not just four victories, but eight poles. He's fully aware, and all too happy to talk about it.

"I learned a long time ago not to brag, but there's one thing I can brag about and that's my team," he says. "Anytime you've got eight poles and nine wins at Bristol, and four wins this year, and close to 2,000 laps led, I'd have to say that in my book they're the best team."

A lot of guys in a lot of sports pretend they don't keep up with the stats. Rusty, you probably figured by now, isn't one of those. His honesty and youthful enthusiasm is quite refreshing.

Along the way, though, Rusty has also learned what his sport is ultimately all about -- selling cars. And like many at the top of the race game, Wallace has gotten involved personally in the game of "moving product." Given his financial interest in the dealership game, he took full advantage of his platform before the media following the Bristol win.

"I just love Bristol," he said. "I like the shape of it and I feel like I know how to get around it, but the one thing that's most important about Bristol is all the people around it. I've got the dealership down the road -- I've got four of them down there. I think the country is beautiful and if I didn't think that I wouldn't have four car dealerships in East Tennessee -- one in Newport and the other three in Morristown."

What Rusty, you're not gonna give us the phone numbers? No info on next weekend's tent sale? You gonna read the tax-tag-and-title disclaimer?

Finally, now that the smoke has cleared and the last few fans have finally reached the interstate on-ramp, we can't help but wonder what the future holds for Bristol. NASCAR's television menu will be handed off to two networks (Fox and NBC) next year. The two networks will relegate certain smaller-market races to their cable partners.

For the geography impaired among us, Bristol, Tenn., isn't what you'd call a national hub. And Saturday nights are generally throw-away nights for networks. So it'll be interesting to see what happens to NASCAR's best show. If the TV boys are smart (and sometimes you wonder), they'll make just one change: Move it from cable to the network, then sit back and wonder how much more ad revenue you could rake in if all the races were this much fun.

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