Iseason Recap:/I Rusty Wallace

In sports, the worst thing a champion can do is hang on too long.

There are countless athletes that cannot stay away from competition and have extended their careers past their prime: Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice, and Michael Jordan are just a few of the many sporting legends who came back to compete and ended up tarnishing their legacy rather than retiring like athletic gods.

At the beginning of 2005, it seemed that Rusty Wallace's name would appear on the list with those legends. The 1984 rookie of the year and 1989 NEXTEL Cup Champion had gone from a championship contender in the early years of the new millennium, when he scored three consecutive seventh place results in the final standings from 2000-2002, to what many believed was a driver trying to hang on too long, having dropped to 14th in 2003 and 16th in 2004.

On top of losing his grip on the standings, Wallace also seemed to have forgotten how to win as he had just one trip to Victory Lane from 2002 to 2004.

But then something magical took place to the fan favorite. Among all of the hoopla and celebration surrounding the "Rusty's Last Call" Tour, Wallace once again became a contender for the NEXTEL Cup Championship as he qualified for the season ending Chase for the NEXTEL Cup.

"I'm on top," he said. "In my mind, I'm on top, and I hope the fans think that. I think I went out with style and grace, and I think I went out on top, too."

Despite not celebrating a victory in 2005, the longtime driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge was able to finish the season in eighth place overall. Despite his pending retirement, Wallace continued striving to succeed right until the very end.

"When the checkered flag fell (at Homestead-Miami), I said, 'Well, Larry (Carter, Crew Chief) where did I finish?' He said 13th and I wish it would have been 12th. That would have sounded better, but I'm a real happy person. I'm a real blessed person and I'm ready to go home and take a shower and relax a little right now."

But with the checkered flag at the Ford 400, it signified the end of an era that included 55 wins, one championship, and millions upon millions of fans that would show up to tracks all over the country on race days in hopes they could catch one last glimpse of the living legend as they remembered him, a champion.

"I’m emotioned out. I cried a thousand tears. I tried not to. I'm a pretty tough old boy I think, but when this is your main deal…I hope that world I'm about to embark on is not a cruel one. I hope I enjoy it as much as I did racing."

As he now moves onto the new phase in his life, Wallace can rest assured that his "Last Call" did not tarnish his legacy, but rather strengthened it as he leaves his car so that another champion, Kurt Busch, can take the helm.

"Fans want me to run another year. I’m not going to do that. I'm finished, and I'm comfortable with my decision. I'm going to spend some time with my family and my wife now. I've been neglecting her for a long, long time. I'll hang out in different stuff: the TV stuff, my kids, my car dealerships. I probably need to go to bed and wake up with clear thoughts and see what happens. It feels good to go out on top of my game."

Photos

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