Wallace Hoping For Encore

FONTANA, Calif. – Rusty Wallace has been pretty quiet this season. That’s pretty odd, given Wallace’s fast-talking, boisterous nature – and that he’s third in the NASCAR Winston Cup points standings.

But Wallace is ready to make some noise, ready for everyone to take notice of him. There would be no better place for Wallace to start the loudness than in victory lane at California Speedway on Sunday.

Wallace is the defending champion of the NAPA Auto Parts 500, but he hasn’t won since. He’s come close, of course, but hasn’t gone back to victory lane.

“Oh, yeah. So many, so close. My God,” said Wallace, who starts 10th in Sunday’s race. “Go to Richmond, last year, 400-lap races, and I led 300 laps in both races, damn near. Just dominate all day long and right at the very end slip up, finish third the first race and fifth the second race. That deal at Michigan. Huge lead in Michigan, driving away, second race, and I lose a cylinder. The good part is as soon as I lost a cylinder, I started flying backwards and a big rain storm came and rained the thing out. And I finished, with the motor blown up.

“Big, big lead in Michigan, big, big lead in Richmond – (but) the one I just rip my hair out over is the Kansas City race last year. Huge lead at Kansas City, I come in for a normal yellow-flag pit stop, I leave pit road, and (NASCAR) said I sped out of pit road, (so) they put me tail back. I go from tail back past 40-some cars, I get to fourth and the race is over. I was truckin’ it. It kills me.

“But so close. If I’m back hovering around the tail-end of the field, that’s one thing. But, boy, the old hot rod is just screaming, and I just gotta close the deal now. Now, I just gotta get it done.”

It’s not like Wallace doesn’t know how to close the deal. He’s won 54 Winston Cup races in his career and has won for 16 straight seasons. That kind of consistency has helped Wallace finish in the Top 10 in points for nine straight years.

That streak started in 1991, when he won 10 races but finished second in the points standings. Winning isn’t everything, it seems, when it comes to Winston Cup titles. Wallace has learned that, and is trying to apply it this season.

In nine races in 2002, Wallace hasn’t finished higher than sixth. But he hasn’t finished lower than 18th, either, and that was in the season-opening Daytona 500.

“These championships now are coming down to very, very tight finishes, and so you can’t afford to give up anything,” Wallace said. “I’m trying to lead more laps on the race track so I can build up those points – that’s real important. Consistency’s probably the most important, and that’s what we’ve been this year – real consistent.

“We’ve been among the top-10 finishers and finishing the races. My mind is all over the points, but I would like to get a win knocked out real soon, and I can’t think of a better track than right here.”

To that end, he’s brought the same car back to California, a “super little hot rod that we call ‘Mad Max,’ Wallace said.

“It’s been completely all rebuilt and freshened up, and it’s a good car,” Wallace said. “Our guys have been working really hard on the horsepower. This track is definitely a horsepower race track. I think that’s one of the reasons I won last year. I had so much horsepower that I was really pulling everybody in the straightaways.

“When I went to Texas this year, I started 28th and drove to the front and took the lead, pulled out, almost a half a straightaway lead on everybody. Tony Glover (team manager for Sterling Marlin) came up to me and said, ‘I told everybody whoever looks the strongest in the straightaways at Texas will be the guy to beat at California.’ And he came right up to me and said, ‘You’re gonna fly out there,’ because our motors are gonna be good.”

That might mean Wallace could be good in the race, too.

“The guys were actually considering retiring (Mad Max) after the Atlanta race last fall, but it’s been so strong that we just couldn’t park the thing,” said crew chief Bill Wilburn. “It’d certainly be cool for Rusty to win another one with this car and move his winning streak forward another year.”

And maybe that noise you’d hear would be Wallace talking about a victory.

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