Wallace Avoids Rude Awakening

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Mike Wallace was driving like a man whose career was on the line Sunday in the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

That’s because, in many ways, it was.

Wallace was in his fourth race with Penske Racing since replacing Jeremy Mayfield, and there have been hints the No. 12 Ford team might not be around in 2002.

But Rusty’s younger brother isn’t going to go away quietly. Sunday on Phoenix’s 1-mile oval, he made Jeff Burton work to make a winning pass, and then held off Ricky Rudd for his best career Winston Cup finish.

“We’re trying to build as strong a case as we can,” Wallace said. “Walt Czarnecki is the owner of the team with Roger. We keep throwing enough ammunition at them, it’ll be pretty hard for them to say they’re going to do anything different than keep it going.

“There would be nothing that could thrill me any more than to stay with the 12 car and Penske Racing. You back this program up four weeks ago when they called me and asked me to drive the car. I was awed by it. It was a huge compliment. We’ve been able to prove to them they made the right choice.”

Penske Racing announced this week that Ryan Newman would race full time in Winston Cup next year with the team, joining Rusty Wallace as a teammate. But will Newman and Rusty be the only Penske teammates? Only time, and Roger Penske, will tell. Penske hasn’t announced a decision yet, as he’s been busy chasing the CART championship, which was clinched this weekend by Gil de Ferran.

CART’s season finale is next week at California Speedway, so perhaps Penske will decide soon after that. Until then, Wallace will continue to resurrect his career. Sunday’s race proved a point.

“The biggest thing it does for me is for all the naysayers that were out there that said that Mike Wallace couldn’t drive a Winston Cup car or didn’t deserve to be in one,” Wallace said. “It proves them wrong. It proves, with good equipment that everybody that’s in this garage area can do it. You’ve just got to get in the right equipment with the right team working with you.”

And Wallace believes he’s with the right team.

“I have the best race team I’ve had in my life,” Wallace said. “This is what all drivers want. I haven’t done anything different as a driver in the past four weeks except get in a better race car with a better race team.

“I’m just happy I’ve had this opportunity to prove to the world that Mike Wallace can drive a race car. That’s big for me.

“I didn’t go to Driver 101 the past four weeks.”

Wallace got in the car for the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, running well until blowing an engine. He finished eighth at Martinsville the next week, and then ended up 18th in the wild finish at Talladega.

At Phoenix, the first victory of his career was within reach. Wallace even allowed himself to dream of going to victory lane.

“It doesn’t take any more work to dream big than it does to dream small,” Wallace said. “I’m cruising around under caution, talking to the guys: ‘Man, we can win this race here.’… You always dream about winning your first race, especially in the Winston Cup Series.

“One time, I’m going down the back straightaway and saying, ‘Man, can you believe all the people they’ve got scattered over this hillside?’ There’s only 43 of us here. We’re pretty lucky to have them come and watch this race.’ Yeah, you get to dreaming.”

Wallace ran in the Top 5 most of the day, and then a gutsy call by crew chief Peter Sospenzo got Wallace the lead. With 69 laps to go, Sospenzo decided to change only right-side tires under caution. Wallace was the first guy out of the pits, but his left-side tires were several laps older.

“I asked him what we were going to do, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you when you enter the box,’” Wallace said. “He wasn’t letting anybody know. It was a great call. It got us the track position we needed.”

What was most interesting about Sospenzo’s decision was that the No. 12 team has had several tire problems this season. And with tires blowing left and right Sunday, one would think the No. 12 team would be the last ones to gamble on tires.

But Wallace likes his cars set up a bit different than Mayfield.

“We worked really hard these four weeks on this car in regards to front-end settings, making sure it doesn’t have tire problems,” Wallace said. “They had a lot of tire problems at the first of the year, and we pretty well tried to eliminated that. I think we have.”

Still, Wallace had the not-so-small problem of holding off the Winston Cup field. He did his best against Burton, but the eventual winner was too strong, slipping to the outside of Wallace on Lap 239 of 312.

Rudd was next, but Wallace was somehow able to hold him off for 34 laps.

“It was very close,” Wallace said. “I thank Ricky for racing me as a gentleman. He knows what my circumstance is: that I need to run good. He wants to run good. He got up underneath me, I gave him a lane, we raced side-by-side, I got a run back off the corner – just had a great race. That’s the way racing is supposed to be.”

And to Wallace, his team is the way a Winston Cup team is supposed to be. Sunday was a “sign of great things to come,” he said. Or at least he hopes.

“I’m absolutely thrilled with the opportunity I’ve got,” Wallace said. “If it continues, that’s what the dream’s about. If it doesn’t continue, it’s been a dream.”

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