Imedia Tour 2001:/I Day 4Brrusty Is Ready To Shine

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There’s no question that 1989 Winston Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace will go in the books as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. With 53 career victories, his place in the Hall of Fame is pretty much secure.

Still, there’s something missing. Winning races is what Wallace is all about, but then he certainly wouldn’t have minded winning a few more championships, either.

“It bothers me that I haven’t won a title since 1989,” Wallace says. “There have been years where I felt like I’ve had a great year and should have won another championship, but it just didn’t happen. When you think about it, 11 years is a long time to go between championships. You feel like you’re doing everything you can to win one, but you come up short.”

Terry Labonte is a driver who could sympathize with Wallace. It took Labonte 12 years after winning his first Winston Cup title in 1984 to win his second one. The 2001 campaign will mark 12 years for Wallace.

Wallace is known by his fellow drivers as one of the toughest competitors on the circuit, but that fact is also viewed as one of the reasons he hasn’t been able to win a second championship.

“Rusty has won a lot of races, but he’s come up short of a championship,” says Jeremy Mayfield, Wallace’s Penske South teammate. “Sometimes you can have almost too much desire and you run everything right on the ragged edge. If you know anything about Rusty Wallace it’s that he runs hard – way too hard. He races as hard as he can week-in and week-out, and maybe that hurts his consistency sometimes.”

Wallace has been close to a second championship numerous times, finishing second in 1993 and fourth the following season. In those two seasons, Wallace won 18 times in 61 races.

For those not fond of math, that figures out to be a victory about every 3.5 races. For those dealing in reality, with five DNFs in each of those years, it just wasn’t the consistency it takes to wind up with the championship trophy.

Unfortunately for Wallace, the following years would present much the same scenario. He has finished no worse than ninth (1997) in the final Winston Cup standings, and he is coming off a 2000 season in which he won four races and nine poles, but ended up seventh in points.

“With the way the points system is set up, we just have to be more consistent because we’ve outrun our competition at a lot of different places,” says crew chief Robin Pemberton. “ We didn’t get the finishing positions we thought we deserved and a lot of that was out of our hands. We put ourselves in that position. The performance is there, we just have to capitalize on it.”

With a strong previous season in mind, which included 20 top-10 finishes and only three DNFs, many are saying the 2001 season just might be the year Wallace gets back on the championship wagon.

“Rusty will be right there,” says 1999 Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, who, along with Wallace and Bill Elliott, are the only three active drivers who have yet to repeat their first titles. “That team is going to work through some of the problems that cost them last year. Rusty won a lot of races and led a lot of laps, so he’s somebody to definitely watch.”

Ricky Rudd agrees the pieces are in place for Wallace to make it his year – if like Mayfield says – the No. 2 Taurus can finish races. Consistency is a must, and that became very evident last season when defending champion Bobby Labonte finished no worse than 26th all season.

As far as on-track performance, Rusty was very good last year,” Rudd says. “You definitely can’t count that team out as being a championship contender. Jeremy’s team was very competitive last year, but it seemed like they had a lot of failures, too. Rusty can be a factor because that team is always very fast, but they break more than they need to break. If he could learn that balance and compromise, he will most definitely be a factor.”

Wallace doesn’t mince words about his chances to take center stage in New York next December.

“I feel really good about it,” Wallace says. “We’re coming off a great year with four wins and nine poles and all those laps led. Heading into the 2001 season with those kinds of stats, I’m a happy camper right now. We have all the intentions in the world of winning the championship.”

The traditionally excited Wallace adds he’s seen a rare spark in his race team, which is hell-bent on getting him that second title.

“Man, these guys are on fire,” Wallace says. “Something’s got them going to keep them going so hard. I’m telling you, I stopped by the shop the other day and all the guys wanted to get t-shirts made up with all these slogans on them.

“I told them to calm down and not get too damn cocky on me right now. We want to win the title and we’ll see what happens. I feel really good about it because of the enthusiasm and the way we left off last year.

“There are a lot of reasons why we should be better. If we can just continue with what we had last year, we’re going to have a helluva team this year.”

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