Wallace Quietly In Contention

One lap.

Rusty Wallace and his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team figure that little margin of error might just be the difference for them between “just another season” and a chance at a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

This past weekend at New Hampshire International Speedway, Wallace cut a right front tire on Lap 112 of the New England 300, forcing him to pit under green and lose a lap. That relegated him to 37th place in the running order, and it appeared as if he was headed for a middle-to-back-of-the-pack finish, which would have cost him a great deal of points.

Later on in the race, however, Wallace was able to make the lap up, via help from Matt Kenseth, and went on to post an impressive fourth-place finish, which actually allowed him to gain points on standings leader Sterling Marlin.

Wallace left New Hampshire in fourth place in the Winston Cup standings, 127 points behind Marlin. But it definitely could have been a lot worse.

“That could very well turn into the most important lap of our season,” said crew chief Bill Wilburn. “Needless to say, I went down there to the 17 truck (Kenseth’s team transporter) and thanked (Kenseth’s crew chief) Robbie (Reiser) for working with us.

“The bottom line is that if we didn’t make up that lap, the best we could have finished was 31st, because there were still 30 cars on the lead lap at the end. That would have been a difference of 90 points. Just think what that might mean at the end of the season.

“Just looking at the standings right now, that would be the difference between being where we are and being sixth in the points and 217 behind Sterling. Being able to finish all the laps is something that we’re really proud of.”

Wallace has completed all but seven of the possible 4,887 laps this season for a 99.9 percent lap completion average. He does not have a DNF in 2002.

“There was no way I was going to get that lap back unless Matt Kenseth gave it to me, and he did,” Wallace said. “I owe him, there’s no doubt about that. He worked good with me and I’ll return the favor. (Sunday) was a huge day for us. I think that put us up to third or fourth in the points, which is really cool.”

Sunday’s fourth-place run was only the second top-five finish for Wallace all season. In fact, prior to his second-place run at Daytona in the Pepsi 400 earlier this month, Wallace hadn’t recorded a top-five finish in 24 races (dating back to September 30, 2001 at Kansas Speedway).

Wallace hasn’t been among the most talked-about drivers this season, mostly because he hasn’t been victory lane (he hasn’t won a race since California in April of 2001). Yet, here Wallace is, in the thick of the Winston Cup championship chase at the age of 45 (he’ll be 46 in August), in quest of his first Winston Cup title since 1989.

“Just like I’ve been saying, we’re gonna be a bunch stronger when we go back to these tracks the second time around and Pocono will mark the first place other than Daytona for a return trip this year,” Wallace said.

And Pocono, the site of this Sunday’s Pennsylvania 500, is certainly a track where Wallace can get the job done. Wallace has won four times during his career at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, tying him with Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Bill Elliott for the most Winston Cup victories at the 2.5-mile, triangular-shaped track.

The last time Wallace won at Pocono was the spring of 2000, but his statistics are much better the second time around there. He’s won the second Winston Cup race of the season there three times, and six of his nine top-five finishes have come in the second event at Pocono.

Wallace finished ninth in the Pocono 500 held back on June 9.

“What we have going for us this week really has us with high hopes,” Wallace said. “We’ll have the exact same car we had there in June, and we have a ton of notes to go by. You might say that the June race was a super test for us leading into this weekend’s race.”

Qualifying for the Pennsylvania 500 is set for 3:05 p.m. Friday. The green flag will wave on the field shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday.

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