Wallace now knows the way By Brett Borden
SAN FRANCISCO (Dec. 8, 1999) Remember the first time you had to find someone's house in another city? You drove around gingerly, wondering why the street signs weren't more prominent and/or better lit. When you finally made it, the route was ingrained in your mind. From that point on, finding that place became easier and easier.
For NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Mike Wallace, 'that place' was on Victory Lane, and he found it for the first time in the season opener at Miami. It didn't take him long to find it again -- just six races later at Pikes Peak.
It was fitting that Wallace would find his first two series victories at those two tracks, one at sea level and one more than 4,000 feet above it. After all, few drivers have experienced the peaks and valleys that Wallace has in his career. He has won in just about every stock car racing series other than it's toughest -- the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He has made it to that pinnacle before, but he struggled while he was there, and now he is trying to do for a second time what most drivers cannot do a first time -- make it to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and win there.
His win at Miami set out hurricane warnings throughout the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. It instantly gained Wallace and his No. 2 Team ASE Ford team credibility. He says it changed him, and his expectations on the season, overnight.
"In hindsight it probably built them up bigger than they would have been," Wallace said. "I thought when we rolled out of the box at Homestead and won that race, we had already talked about trying to win a championship. I thought that made the statement 'Hey, these guys are serious, they can win a championship.'
"Other than Jimmy Smith owning the team, we had all new people going into Homestead. (Crew chief) Tim Kohuth and I had worked together over at Ken Schrader Racing, but we had all new crew guys. We had guys that had never even raced before. We had some really good pit stops during that race, and man, if you can pull that off right out of the box with those kind of guys, it's only going to get better.
It did, but not to the extent that his Miami performance suggested it would. He won again, overcoming a dominant Jack Sprague at Pikes Peak International Raceway. But then it was more frustration than elation. The disappointment of not reaching Victory Lane now had a dash of failure sprinkled onto the bitter taste of disappointment. Expectations were higher, so high that three runner-up finishes and nine top-5s in the last 16 races couldn't meet them.
"Winning championships and multitudes of races is such a tough feat. I look at our year, and in general we didn't have a very bad year. We won two races. We were sixth in points -- which is not where we wanted to be. We had 12 top-5 finishes. Seventeen top-10s. Not really a bad year. But based on our renewed expectations it was kind of disappointing.
"But look at how many guys didn't win a race. Look at how many didn't have 12 top-5 finishes. There were a lot more who didn't than did."
Two wins. Twelve top-5s. Those are serious numbers, and they were put up by a more serious Wallace than we've seen in years past.
"I think it's a byproduct of trying to put yourself in the right position," he said. "Mike Wallace has always been extremely serious about his racing. I've learned to race in the shadows of my brother (Rusty). I'm Rusty's brother. I don't have a first name most of the time. I make jokes of it any more, because that's all I ever hear. That's true, but my name is Mike Wallace, and I do have the capabilities to win races.
"If you stop and look at our careers, since 1991, I've won in the NASCAR Busch Series, I've won in the Craftsman Truck Series, I've won in the Winston West Series and I've won in the ARCA Series. All of them multiple times. The only thing I haven't won is a Winston Cup Series race."
He can't do that while he's still in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. But he realizes he has to win in a truck to get there.
"I've made it very clear that I want to (run) Winston Cup," Wallace said. "And some people take that the wrong way. They think 'well, you're not satisfied where you are.' I'm satisfied for the moment there. I want to win. I'd like to go into next year and win the championship. Then I could hopefully have the opportunity to move back to a Cup opportunity, but as a champion, or as a guy that won a lot of races. You want to be successful at whatever level you're at. I have fortunately been able to win at every level except for Winston Cup. And I just need a great opportunity to go there."
Just like Victory Lane in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Wallace has been there before. And that should make finding his way back a little easier.