Rusty Wallace Interview (transcript)

Conversation with Rusty Wallace RPM 2Night The following is part of an RPM 2Night interview with Miller Lite Ford driver Rusty Wallace. Wallace, who leads the NASCAR Winston Cup Series points standings after two straight top-five finishes,...

Conversation with Rusty Wallace RPM 2Night

The following is part of an RPM 2Night interview with Miller Lite Ford driver Rusty Wallace. Wallace, who leads the NASCAR Winston Cup Series points standings after two straight top-five finishes, talked about his thoughts on a dismal 1997 and a bright 1998, as well as his strong run in the Daytona 500. Dr. Jerry Punch's complete interview, was on Saturday night

Dr. Jerry Punch: I've got to ask you, the M.O. for Rusty Wallace is that you begin the Daytona 500 in some spectacular fashion -- wild tumbles, something where you have a terrible finish. You run pretty good at Rockingham. You then struggle early on in the year. Then you comeback with an end of the year surge to try to win the points or at least you won the points one time. That's the way you've done it in the past, but this year -- two top-five finishes, you are leading the points after two races. Will the real Rusty Wallace please stand up?

Rusty Wallace: It seems that way doesn't it. Gosh, it feels so good to be so organized. People ask me all the time now the last couple of weeks, 'what's the difference' and the difference is a total new approach to this year. I can't compare this year to anything different. I mean anything at all that we did last year is completely different. New people, new approach, a two-car team, a teammate driver that seems to be doing great -- Jeremy (Mayfield) and I get along wonderful. Every time he drives the car and says its handling good I get in it and it feels the same to me. So many things different you can't compare last year to this year at all. New Ford Taurus, the whole deal.

JP: You mentioned last year, so let's get the one painful question out of the way. 1997 -- one win, one pole, 10 DNFs -- in a few words sum up Rusty's thoughts about 1997.

RW: Last year was miserable, everything was totally unexpected. Everything that happened was the unexpected. I started off the beginning of the year feeling great going into Daytona Beach. We had a great test session down there. We unloaded, qualified fourth I think, we finished second in the Bud Shootout last year to Jeff Gordon. The direct opposite to what happened this year. Sixth in the 125s and then we blew up in the 500, and I left the 500 just feeling like I lost my best friend, it was incredible the feeling that I had. Then I went to Rockingham and had a fifth or a sixth and everything was going OK and then a crash at Atlanta and then a blown motor and then it just wouldn't stop -- the blown engines, the blown engines, the blown engines. And then it seemed like it stopped halfway through the year, but halfway through the year the damage was already finished.

JP 1998 Daytona 500, Speedweeks -- you go to Daytona with a lot of hopes, a lot of aspirations, but also a lot of doubt because of the new Taurus. What was the biggest surprise for Rusty Wallace about your performance during Speedweeks?

RW: My performance during Speedweeks, I got to tell you, there wasn't any surprises. The surprise was the we didn't have any problems. But going into it we know we tested good, Jeremy's cars tested good. All through practice the cars handled good. I drove the car, Jeremy drove the car. Buddy Baker, Buddy was with me three straight days testing down there and then three straight days with Jeremy in Talladega and everything went right. Our dyno numbers were right, our test was right. So, you go to Daytona and you think you are prepared. Well, we unload and we qualify eighth and we got the quickest Taurus down there. Boy, that's one step done. I told my guys 'we are gonna treat each one of these deals likes it's its own individual race.' Then we get into the Bud Shootout and we win the thing and we ran strong all day in it. Then we get into the 125s and we finish fifth and I say 'great.'

Great starting position, I say now 'boys, we got the big one now. This is the one that pays the gold.' We run better in that race than I thought we would ever run. Second and third, second and third all day long and everything went perfect and I slipped from second to fifth. My best finish ever at Daytona, but above all a guy can finish good in a race, but to me if he doesn't run up front all day long it really isn't a great day. We ran up front all day long, that was a great day. Then to go to Rockingham and qualify seventh, my teammate qualified fifth and run up front all day long and lead off and on all day long and finish second, it's going OK right now.

JP: I've got to ask you with just a few laps to go at Daytona, you've run well all day long, you've got to be thinking to yourself, 'wait a minute, this is Rusty Wallace, the Daytona 500. Not only have I not had trouble and I may finish in the top-10 or the top-five, I can win this thing. Yeah, I can actually win the Daytona 500.' But you are probably saying, 'OK, there's my buddy Earnhardt, who has been trying for 20 years to win it, if it comes into a last lap shootout, this could get ugly.'

RW (Laughs) If it had been a last lap shootout between me and Earnhardt, it could have gotten ugly. But, I tell you, the thing about restrictor plate racing, you've got to know you've got the hot rod when you go out to make a pass. Many, many times with Jeremy on my backend or the 18 car on my backend, I could have pulled out. I could have probably gotten dead even with them, but unless I clear Earnhardt, it's gonna be a gun fight because this guy was not gonna give up. That way, he's just a great driver. And, so I elected to say in line and run and run and log the laps down and get this thing down to 10 laps to go. But about 15 laps before that the scenario changed. Jeremy got in front of me on a pit stop and I just stayed hooked to him. But, the thing I didn't counter was right there about five to go, the 18 car getting a fender underneath me and that put me from third back to about eighth. And I'm going, 'Oh my God, all day long I've run up front. I'm gonna slip out of the top-10 here.' Well, I fought back and forth and got inside, got a little drafting help, went to the top, went to the bottom, muscled my way back up to fourth. And when the checkered flag fell, Schrader and cross side by side. I think he beat me by about a foot for fourth. Man, what a good feeling it was, just a great feeling. If I couldn't have won, I'm honestly really happy that Earnhardt won it, cause he needed to win it. I called him on the phone to congratulate him. He said, 'Look, I've won mine, now it's your turn next year and I have no problem at all with you winning it next year.' I said, 'Man, I appreciate it, but one thing I want you to know, I was only 40 foot behind you.' He goes, 'OK.' So, he won the thing and I'm glad he won the thing I really am."

JP: OK, Rockingham. You got to Rockingham, the questions were answered at Daytona about the Taurus, about the drag. It wasn't as much of a drag as they thought it was gonna be. The downforce would come into play at Rockingham. Was the Taurus awesome there?

RW: Yeah, the Taurus was a really good car there. A lot of good Taurus teams out there, a lot of them qualified well. We were up front swapping the lead -- me, Rick Mast, Mark Martin, Jeremy -- back and forth, those four or five cars all day long. But, I kept seeing Gordon back there, he'd fall to the back. He'd come to the front. He'd fall to the back, then he'd come to the front and I really didn't know what was going on, but he was chasing the handling package. Like they've done so many times, they've come out of a problem and took their car up to front and won the thing. I wish I could have won the race, because I felt like we had a great car. The Taurus did show good on the high downforce tracks. Now we are just gonna have to wait and get more races under our belt and see how it is gonna do.

JP: Las Vegas -- race No. 3 -- you've never driven a lap, never been there to compete on the race track. Yet, what you and your teammate did after Daytona may helped you more than you realized?

RW: Well, after Daytona, we did some testing at a location, a flatter race track. We ran a Penske chassis versus a Kranefuss-Penske chassis. We evaluated the two cars. We looked at them and they were almost identical in speed. One had a little bit different feel. We elected to go to Las Vegas with the Kranefuss chassis, which I like a lot and Jeremy has got his Kranefuss chassis. We are taking two cars that after our meetings, we can talk about and understand because we got the same piece. But, we'll do that, but, we haven't had a lap on Vegas yet. But, we've talked to an awful lot of people. I really like the flat tracks. I'm taking a little bit of a mix between Pocono and Phoenix and different tracks and throwing them into a big back and tumbling them up. And then, talking with Paul (Andrews, crew chief for Mayfield) about the way he feels about his chassis and just listening. Sitting down with our people at the shop, our crew chiefs, our engineers and saying what do you think. So we come up with a setup to unload with and I think we'll be really close when we come off the truck. Then we'll have that first four hours or five hours of practice on Thursday to get us warmed up for Friday.

JP: We are still early in 1998, but do you still wake up in the middle of the night and say to yourself, 'I'm leading the Winston Cup points.' And I didn't realize, it's the first time since May of 1993 that you've lead the Winston Cup point standings?

RW: I don't think of it as that way, because people look at it as, 'Oh my God, this is a new guy, just come off the block.' I mean I take offense to it some how, because I feel like our team never got the respect it needed to have because we had so many stupid problems. I look at losing the championship to Elliott in '88 by 12 points I think it was. We won the thing in '89. We led it all year long in '93 end up breaking my wrist and lost a couple of points. And Dale got passed me then I had this incredible surge at the end of '93, won 10 races and I run him down within 60 points. So, what I look at is the two championships I just let slip away. That would have put me at three championships right now.

And you got to take last year and throw it away, because it was just a horrible year. The year before, we win six races, we win the inaugural race in Japan, great year finish fourth or fifth in the points or something. My problem has always been Daytona and Talladega, starting behind, and now we've finally come out of it right with a car that drove good, a car that ran good and for the first time I come out of Daytona saying, 'Man, I can't wait to get to Talladega. I'm excited about getting to Talladega.' So we are gonna take each race like it is the last race and put a lot of focus on it and try to win my second championship.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Rusty Wallace , Rick Mast , Buddy Baker , Mark Martin