Wallace Races Against The Odds

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Finally, Mike Wallace is getting the second chance he so dearly coveted to prove himself in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

The only question now is, can Wallace capitalize on that opportunity with a team that hasn’t enjoyed a whole lot of success in the Winston Cup Series through the past few years? For several reasons, the odds are stacked again him, but Wallace’s optimism remains intact.

Just the fact that he’s back in a Winston Cup car on a full-time basis for the first time since 1996 has Wallace bubbling with excitement. The 41-year-old sibling of Winston Cup drivers Rusty and Kenny Wallace will try to bring Jim Smith’s No. 7 Ultra Motorsports Ford team some respectability after a finish of 28th in the 2000 season standings (with Michael Waltrip).

“I’m really pumped up about this year,” says Wallace, who spent the past three-plus years in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. “I still get to drive for Jim, which is a plus in itself because I don’t really have to go anywhere.

“The team is switching back to Ford, which I’m happy about. We’ve got Robert Yates doing our motors, and you can’t say enough about that. I’ve got Tim Brewer as my crew chief, and he’s got tons of experience. And I’ve got a lot of great guys working on the car. I’m just really looking forward to having a great year.

“It’s a tremendous feeling to get back in Winston Cup. I feel like this is where I belong because I know I can be competitive here and win races. I always told myself that I wouldn’t go back to Winston Cup unless I felt like I could win, and this is a situation where I know that can happen.”

The No. 7 team hasn’t enjoyed much success through the past few years in Winston Cup. The last time it won a race was at Watkins Glen in 1996, when Geoffrey Bodine both owned and drove the car. Since then, it has been known as Mattei Motorsports and then eventually Ultra Motosports, when Smith bought the team last year.

The single-car team hasn’t finished higher than 27th in the Winston Cup points standings the past three seasons.

Wallace’s last venture in the Winston Cup Series was a humbling one. From early 1994 to mid-1996, he made 58 starts in the No. 90 Ford owned by Junie Donlavey. During that time, he had only one top-10 finish (fifth in 1995 at Atlanta) and was replaced by Dick Trickle midway through the 1996 season.

“You can’t imagine how tough that was to take, not being able to be even remotely successful while driving for Junie,” Wallace says. “I’m grateful he gave me the chance, but then I look at how that car has done since then, and he hasn’t really had a whole lot of success since I left. Considering his history in the sport, that’s a shame. He did what he felt like he had to do try and make the team more successful.

“But even after that I still felt like I could be competitive in Winston Cup. The opportunities just never really materialized, and when that happens, you have to start looking elsewhere to get someplace where you can re-establish yourself and make your way back to where you want to be.”

Since then, Wallace has made spot starts for a few Winston Cup, Busch Series and ARCA teams, and midway through the 1997 campaign, he hooked up with Ken Schrader to run the remainder of races in the Craftsman Truck Series. After another winless year with Schrader, Wallace moved over to drive for Smith, and found victory lane for the first time in his NCTS career.

He won twice in 1999, including the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and finished sixth in the points standings. With his confidence back, Wallace says he had a couple of opportunities to return to Winston Cup, but with teams he figured weren’t going to be successful.

So, he stayed in the truck series for another year in 2000, a year in which he finished fourth in the points and won two more races. In December, Wallace finally felt it was time to make the leap once again, and fortunately, it came with Smith, his truck series owner.

Wallace rejoins his siblings at NASCAR’s highest level, one of whom says he’s ready to make a run at a second Winston Cup championship (Rusty), and the other who is still struggling to find his own identity in the series (Kenny).

Now Wallace has been charged with turning the No. 7 NationsRent team’s fortunes around, which could be a huge task for a driver trying to bond with a new team. Having found a way to win in the truck series, however, Wallace says he’s up to the task.

“In regards to putting yourself in a position to win, I think as drivers, we all have that ability and understand what it takes to win,” he says. “It’s putting yourself in the right environment with the right supporting cast. Any of us are only as good as the equipment we’re in and the people we are surrounded by.

“It’s the people working on the team and the support they give the driver and the driver gives them in return. I understand what the crew is looking for, what kind of support they are looking for from me, and I hope they respect me in the same way."

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