He has won in each season since 1986, but it's over if he doesn't win one of next three Winston Cup races.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2002
Rusty Wallace is awfully proud to have won at least one Winston Cup race in each of the previous 16 seasons, but he is running out of time to extend the streak.
The pressure is mounting.
"I'm going into every single one of these last three races feeling like I've got the safety pulled off the trigger or the pin pulled out of the hand grenade," said Wallace, 45-year-old driver of the No. 2 Ford.
"I'm treating every race like it's the very last race."
Wallace, who starts eighth in today's Pop Secret 400 at North Carolina Speedway, has enjoyed one of his most consistent seasons in years, failing to finish only one race.
A championship contender most of the season, he is fifth in the series standings, 227 points behind leader Tony Stewart. But Wallace is the only driver among the top 12 without a victory.
He has gone 59 races without winning, since April 2001 at California Speedway, to match his longest winless streak since he first won in 1986. If he wins one of the final three races he will surpass Ricky Rudd, who won at least one race from 1983-98, to set NASCAR's modern-era record. Richard Petty holds the all-time mark of 18 seasons in 1960-77.
"There's a lot of pressure on myself to get this win done," said Wallace, who ranks ninth with 54 career wins. "There's been pressure all year long, really. I never thought I'd go this long without a win. But we've had a great car all year. We've been real consistent, we've run real fast.
"There have been so many times we should-a, could-a, but didn't."
He has three runner-up finishes: the July race at Daytona, the Brickyard 400 and the prestigious night race at Bristol. A nine-time winner at Bristol, Wallace put considerable effort into preparing for the August race and was leading with two laps left when Jeff Gordon tapped his rear bumper to make the winning pass.
Rather than dwell on missed chances, Wallace and first-year crew chief Bill Wilburn are working to prepare for the final three races, scheduling extra tests and time in a wind tunnel. Wallace is involved in all decisions relating to the car's setup.
"I'm a dominant person when it comes to what I want in the car," said Wallace, who tabbed Wilburn, a member of his pit crew, when longtime crew chief Robin Pemberton left last season. "Billy's helped me a lot and calmed me down a lot with aggressive setups.
"He and I get into it occasionally about, "We should have done this or we should have done that.' We were talking the other day that between him and me, we've cost ourselves over 250 points just with some pit calls we've made. We've had a really fast car all year long, but we've given it away a couple of times."
Wallace can be difficult to persuade.
"I think Rusty has been his own worst enemy in some cases over the years," Wilburn said.
"He's got such a drive to win that sometimes he doesn't look at the big picture as far as the finishes and things that we need to do to be consistent every week."
Slowly, Wilburn has gained Wallace's trust.
"The first half of the year he'd make the call, and that's what we'd do," Wilburn said. "The second half of the year I've been able to go back and say, "Remember what we did here? That wasn't that good. We need to look at something different.' "
Of the remaining races, Wallace feels good about his chances to win at Rockingham and Phoenix and is less sure about Homestead, a flat track where passing is difficult.
He leads active drivers with five wins at Rockingham and staged a dramatic rain-shortened victory at Phoenix in 1998, the 31st of 33 races that season, to extend his streak.
"I'm concerned a little bit," Wallace said. "I want to get the win knocked out real quick. And I'd love to win a championship, there's no doubt about that.
"I'm only 70 points out of second place right now, so that looks real positive. If Stewart has an engine problem or something like that, then we're right on his tail again."