The veteran, winless for a year, is confident at California Speedway, the track his car owner built.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2002
It has been a year since Rusty Wallace won a race.
Seem like it?
"Oh yeah," Wallace said.
Wallace, whose streak of 16 seasons with at least one victory is the longest in Winston Cup, returns today to California Speedway, the smooth, fast, 2-mile track in Fontana where he last won.
"California is pretty new to us and that market is so big, and it's all different fans," said Wallace, who will start 10th in today's NAPA 500 in the No. 2 Ford. "To go out and win the 500-miler in dominant fashion like we did was a really cool feeling."
One he'd like to relive.
Wallace is one of 11 Winston Cup drivers with more than 50 wins; his 54 rank second among active drivers to four-time champion Jeff Gordon's 58. But Wallace, who won at a furious pace in the early 1990s, can count more races he has lost than won in the past year.
Last season, Wallace led the most laps at Richmond and Kansas but lost both in the final pit stops: Richmond because of an ill-advised air pressure adjustment and Kansas because he sped off pit road.
This month at Texas, Wallace was pulling away on Lap 230 of 334 when part of the front suspension broke.
"So many, so close," Wallace said.
Though the win column is bare in 2002, Wallace is third in points, 157 behind leader Sterling Marlin. Sneaky in his ascent, Wallace is the only driver in the top 10 without a top-five finish, the only one in the top five in points without a win.
But, with five top 10s and an average finish of 10.4, he has been remarkably consistent in a points system that rewards consistency. Since finishing 18th in the Daytona 500, where he ran up front but was caught in a late wreck, Wallace has finished on the lead lap of all eight races and led two of the past three. "If I'm back there running around at the end of the field, that's one thing," said Wallace, the 1989 series champion. "But the ol' hot rod is screaming. I've just got to close the deal."
During the offseason, Wallace had to replace longtime crew chief Robin Pemberton, who grew weary of the travel and left to become team manager at Petty Enterprises. People scratched their heads when Wallace tabbed Bill Wilburn, a tire changer on the No. 2 pit crew, to replace Pemberton atop the pit box.
But the combination works.
"His adrenaline level is so high, it's unreal," Wallace said. "He's not a guy who runs around and says, "It's okay; it's okay.' You end up with a lot of okays. We had that last year. Now, we've got a bunch of guys who want to win."
With peers such as Mark Martin struggling last season and Dale Jarrett off to a rough start this season, Wallace, 45, is proud of his consistency over the span of a lengthy career.
Only once since he first won in 1986 has he finished outside the top 10 in points (13th in 1992).
"You're not going to be continuously successful on a racetrack unless you understand your car inside and out," Wallace said. "You can't get out of that car and say, "My car's not handling, can you fix it for me?' I get out of my car and say, "Change that spring, change that shock, change that sway bar.'
"If Bill Wilburn knew everything and he left me, we'd be sitting there knowing nothing. If he leaves me, well, that's a big loss and I wish that wouldn't have happened but, "Okay guys, change that spring, change that shock, change that sway bar.' "
Because Wallace knows his car, he also knows where he has the best chance to win. At California, built in 1997 by Wallace's longtime owner, Roger Penske, everything falls into place.
"Our guys have been working really hard on the horsepower and that track is definitely a horsepower racetrack," Wallace said. "That's one of the reasons I won last year. I was really pulling everybody in the straightaways. It's flat, smooth and hard to pass."
So the win streak could continue today?
"Oh yeah," he said.