Wallace Looks To Close The Deal

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RICHMOND -- Rusty Wallace has more than a few good reasons to be excited about Saturday's Winston Cup Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

For one, he's on a bit of a roll these days. Minus an accident in last week's Southern 500, Wallace is the hottest driver on the Winston Cup circuit, with two victories and three top-five finishes in his past five races.

For another, he's made his way back toward the top of the Winston Cup point standings. And then there's RIR itself, a place where he's won six times during his illustrious career, has 17 top-five finishes and won three poles.

Don't expect anything different from the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team this weekend. Wallace will be a heavy favorite to take the checkered flag under the lights Saturday night at the .750-mile oval.

"I'm really anxious about getting back there because we always run very well at Richmond," says Wallace, who sits fifth in the Winston Cup point standings, 397 points behind leader Bobby Labonte and 172 points behind fourth-place Jeff Burton. "I'm interested in trying some new shock absorber stuff there. My car has been running like 70 laps in a run and all of a sudden the front tires start chattering on it with the shocks we normally run, so I'm interested in trying some new shock things.

"But we're going to go back with our normal qualifying setup that I've gotten the past two or three poles with up there, and go for the pole with that. Hopefully I can get it, but then for the race setup I'll start off with that setup I had last time and try to perfect it some more."

The Pontiac Excitement 400 in May saw Wallace smoke the field for the pole with a track-record qualifying lap of 124.740 mph. He then led 231 of the 400 laps before watching Dale Earnhardt, Jr. edge Terry Labonte for the victory.

Wallace certainly had the dominant car throughout that evening, but couldn't close the deal in the final 100 laps. He wound up finishing a disappointing fifth behind Earnhardt, Jr., Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd.

"Something like that is very frustrating," says Wallace, whose last victory at Richmond came in the spring of 1997. "You sit on the pole and you lead over 200 laps. I can't remember exactly what happened, but I think we pitted late and everybody else stayed out, and we lost a lot of track position. We'll try not to let that happen this time."

Earnhardt, Jr.'s victory was his second of the season, following up his first career Winston Cup triumph in early April at Texas Motor Speedway. He's had only one top-five finish since Richmond, however, that coming in late May in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

That top-five finish, however, allows Earnhardt, Jr. - along with Matt Kenseth, Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt - to compete for the Winston "No Bull" 5 $1 million bonus Saturday night.

Earnhardt, Jr. hopes a return visit to Richmond will help rekindle the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team's winning ways heading into the latter portion of the 2000 campaign.

"We've got 10 races left, and anything can happen," Earnhardt, Jr. says. "We keep learning new things every week, and we're looking forward to racing again at Richmond. It would be great to put the Budweiser Chevy in victory lane in the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400, something I'm sure Chevrolet wouldn't mind at all.

"We tested at Richmond and didn't work on anything but our race setup. I think we had the second fastest car there, and we never even made a qualifying run. We've always been pretty good at that track. We finished 10th at Richmond last fall and didn't even have brakes for the last part of the race. If we can keep everything together and get a break or two, we might have a good chance to give 'em a run for their money up there again."

Series points leader Bobby Labonte is coming off a "strange" victory in last week's Pepsi Southern 500 at Darlington, and hopes to ride that momentum into Richmond.

RIR is not a track that Labonte can claim among his best performance-wise through the years. He did, however, record two top-five finishes there in 1999.

The driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac, who leads Jarrett by 111 points heading into the weekend, finished 26th in the Pontiac Excitement 400 earlier this year, four laps down to Earnhardt, Jr.

Jarrett, on the other hand, finished third at Richmond in the spring event, and owns a pair of victories at RIR, in 1997 and 1999. Earnhardt, who sits in third place in the point standings (205 points behind Labonte), is a five-time winner at Richmond, including twice in the fall event.

Saturday night's Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 will mark the Winston Cup debut of Busch Series standout Casey Atwood, provided Atwood can qualify for the race on Friday. Atwood will drive a car prepared by Ray Evernham, who makes his return to the Winston Cup Series for the first time since leaving Hendrick Motorsports last year to head up the Dodge contingency's efforts to field teams for the 2001 season.

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