DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 17, 1998) Rusty Wallace enters Sunday's TranSouth Financial 400 looking for his first win of the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup season, and his first career win on the historical 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway oval....
DARLINGTON, S.C. (March 17, 1998) Rusty Wallace enters Sunday's TranSouth Financial 400 looking for his first win of the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup season, and his first career win on the historical 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway oval. But more important to Wallace and his Miller Lite Team Penske is their bid to continue the impressive competitive consistency which has put them atop the series point standings.
"We're just taking them one race at a time," said Wallace, who leads the standings by 49 points over Mobil 1-sponsored teammate Jeremy Mayfield. "As long as we keep on clicking off the top-five finishes like we have so far, who can ask for anything more? Like I said before, if we can keep the consistency going like we have, we're going to win our share of races, that's for sure. Sure, we're eager to win, but we're smart enough this year to keep focused on the big picture, and that puts the consistency factor as the top priority."
Darlington promises to be a true challenge for Wallace and his Robin Pemberton-led team. If history holds true, this weekend's race could also serve notice that the team will continue to be a championship contender at year's end. In the last four seasons, Darlington has been one of Wallace's more inconsistent tracks (four top-10 finishes sandwiched in between four finishes of 23rd, 33rd, 38th and 43rd). Of note is the fact that only during his championship season in 1989 and his last season as a serious title challenger in 1993 has Wallace posted a single-digit average finish for Darlington's two races (8th and 4th in '89 for a 6.0 average and a 5th and 3rd in '93 for a 4.0 average).
"Darlington will be a major challenge to keep our top-five finish streak alive," said the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Taurus. "Yes, we're still looking for our first win at the track, but we've been super close a couple of times before, having to settle for second place twice. In recent years, we've had some strong runs, but we've also gotten caught up in crashes. We've been taken out innocently, falling victim to weird things like guys blowing up in front of us and stuff.
"We're coming in hoping to be a strong first-round qualifier in order to get a good spot in the pits. Then we'll take it from there. What they say about Darlington is the absolute truth. The place is so demanding that you do race the track first and the competition next."
While Wallace started 15th, drove a consistent race and finished sixth in last year's TranSouth Financial 400, the team's most recent trip to Darlington is one they'd just as soon forget. Forced to use a past champion's provisional to get into last fall's Southern 500 starting field, Wallace had made only five laps before running through fluid dropped by another car and slamming hard into the outside wall. The team was credited with a 43rd-place finish.
"It was a total disaster...we started and finished last and it don't get any worse than that," Pemberton said. "Without a doubt, the Southern 500 was the low point of the year. But looking back now, it really shows the caliber and style of our driver and race team. That was like adding insult to injury.
"After having all the mechanical failures that we did during the season and then go through an embarrassing weekend like that, Rusty and all our guys were able to buckle up and put things back in the right direction for the rest of the season. We were mired way back out of the top-10 in points when that happened, and we still managed to come back and finish ninth. That says a lot these days."
Wallace was 14th in points, 205 points out of 10th, after the Darlington fiasco and the team battled back during the final nine races to finish ninth in the 1997 point standings.
In another numerical note, it was pointed out to Pemberton that so far during the 1998 season, his team has recorded points race finishes, in order, of fifth, second, third and fourth. If the top-five streak continues at Darlington, the only number missing is a first.
"A win would be great," Pemberton said. "And we still enter every race with winning on our mind. But at Darlington, I wouldn't be unhappy at all to see the season's first duplicate number as far as that deal goes."
In his 28 career Darlington races, Wallace has recorded 10 top-five finishes and 15 top-10s. He finished fourth in his first Southern 500 back in 1984 and was named Rookie of the Race during his successful bid for the series' Rookie of the Year title.
First-round qualifying for Sunday's 293-lap, 400-mile race is set for Friday at 3:30 p.m. Live Bud Pole Qualifying coverage will be provided by ESPN2 and MRN Radio as the drivers compete for the top-25 starting spots.
Source: NASCAR Online