Rusty At Martinsville Indeed

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Calling Rusty Wallace the King of Martinsville Speedway wouldn’t be much of a reach, especially if you only consider active drivers.

For one, Wallace has won more races (six) than any other active driver. He leads with 15 Top 5s and 20 Top 10s and is the last driver to sweep both races on the .526-mile paperclip-shaped track.

Five of his six wins here came in a seven-race span in the mid-1990s. And overall, Wallace is tied for third with Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt behind Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip on the track’s all-time victory list.

But guess when Wallace’s last victory here was. This year? Nope. Last year then? Try again. 1999? Not a chance. Then it’s gotta be 1998. Wrong. What about 1997? Wrong again.

You have to go back to April 21, 1996 for Wallace’s last victory.

“I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that happening in my wildest dreams, but that’s what the record book says,” Wallace said. “The bottom line is that the record book says that we haven’t won at Martinsville since ’96, but the fact is that we should have won about half of those races since then.”

Perhaps, but after finishing in the top three eight straight races, Wallace has finished outside the top three 10 straight times.

“We can’t go back and run all those races again,” Wallace said. “They’re now all missed opportunities. But what we can do is learn from all of that and go back with the best preparation we can and put the big numbers on the board again.”

Those big numbers were routine from 1992 to 1996. In that 10-race stretch, he led 1,689 laps, including an incredible 409 of 500 in the first race here in 1993.

Oh, sure, Wallace has found his way to the front several times since then, including the 343 laps he led in the first race last year and the 226 laps he led in the second race in 1997. But he hasn’t found his way to victory lane.

Boy, has he been close.

In the spring race last year, Wallace led 232 of the first 253 laps but had a tire go down. He made it to pit road without any damage but lost two laps. Wallace made up one of those back on the track, and when leader Dale Earnhardt pitted, Wallace was back on the lead lap and back in the lead with 174 laps to go.

But his team decided to change four tires on its final pit stop and was mired back in the field while Mark Martin won the race.

In this race two years ago, Wallace started 20th and fought back most of the day from having flat tires and pitting out of sequence. He made up laps four times to finish fourth.

In the spring race in 1999, Wallace led the most laps (177) but faded to a seventh-place finish. In the fall race in 1998, Wallace lost 18 laps after a crash on the fourth lap. He returned to the track after making repairs and ran laps quicker than the race, making up four laps in the process.

The biggest controversy came in this race four years ago. Wallace led 226 laps and was out front on a restart with 15 laps left. But NASCAR black-flagged him for jumping the start.

“They said I jumped the start and they black-flagged me for a stop-and-go penalty,” Wallace said. “There I was leading the thing and about to win and they black-flag me. We went from leading and winning it to being the last car on the lead lap – hero to a hobo just like that. Then, after the race I said some things they didn’t like on the radio broadcast and they slapped me with a fine.”

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Ten times. You can bet that was frustrating.

“That’s why we spent Monday and Tuesday of last week testing at Martinsville,” Wallace said. “The last few races there we’ve had some problems with brakes, shocks, not choosing the right springs. The place has been really good to us in the past, and we’re really looking to regain our spot at the top of the competition there.”

Another reason Wallace decided to test was a new strip of concrete in the fourth turn. The track built a pedestrian tunnel to allow people in and out of the infield during competition but had to dig up part of the track.

“One of the biggest things we’ll face this time that’s different from every other time we’ve raced there concerns the new pedestrian tunnel down in the fourth turn,” Wallace said. “It’s a great new addition for the track, and I was happy that (track president) Clay (Campbell) let me do the official ribbon cutting for it last week.

“But the bottom line is that it’s added a little ripple and slick spot there that we haven’t had to consider before. That alone probably made the testing worthwhile. Let’s put it this way: it was enough that we wound up changing our shock package around a little because of it.”

Will that be enough to allow Wallace to regain his title as King of Martinsville? Stay tuned.

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