Rusty Wallace press conference

RUSTY WALLACE (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Intrepid) NOTE: Miller Lite announced Wednesday that should Rusty Wallace win his first Daytona 500 on Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway, all legal drinking age race fans in attendance will receive...

RUSTY WALLACE (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Intrepid)

NOTE: Miller Lite announced Wednesday that should Rusty Wallace win his first Daytona 500 on Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway, all legal drinking age race fans in attendance will receive a coupon for a free six-pack of Miller Lite. It will be Wallace's 40th start at Daytona and his first in a Dodge. He has six top fives and 16 top 10s at the 2.5-mile track. In his last 11 starts at Daytona, Wallace has six top fives and nine top 10s. In the past five Daytona 500s, Wallace has three top fives and four top 10s with a career-best finish of third in the 2001 Daytona 500. He finished second in last year's Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

COMMENT ON SMALLER FUEL CELLS AT DAYTONA

"I think the smaller fuel cells at Daytona won't be as good as at Talladega for this reason. Daytona is a track that gets real hot and slick. As the tires wear down at Daytona, the cars tend to separate farther apart. If you can't run as long as you did before, I think with tire wear the way it is, the cars are going to stay bunched up closer. Instead of running 35 laps when the tires usually start going away, around that period of time we're going to be hitting pit road. With these smaller fuel cells it could actually keep the cars bunched up tighter. I hope to gosh that doesn't work, but I see the writing on the wall where that could be a possibility.

"If you're supposed to come in in the 125s and put on two tires, I think everybody will do two tires because they want to stay in that draft and keep going. There's definitely not as many cars in the 125 and the handling generally isn't as important in that race as it is in the 500. It's going to shake it up. The pit stops are going to be key, no doubt about that, getting the cars hooked up with the right cars in the draft. If you come in and have a bad pit stop or come in to take on four tires instead of two, it could get you in trouble if you run continuous green. If you do four and the caution flag comes out and you're on the race track, it might be a good idea to be sitting out there with four tires."

ARE YOU GOING TO THROW A BIG PARTY IF YOU WIN DAYTONA 500?

"We've got a good shot at winning this year. Testing went real good, and the engines and the cars look fantastic. I've learned to quit being so bold with my statements going into Daytona. I'm a little more reserved, but I'm real confident going into it. I guess the race I thought I had won, I guess it was 2000. I was leading with 12 laps to go. The caution flag came out and we had a restart. Jeremy (Mayfield) was my teammate. He was right on my bumper, and his handling went away and he fell back. Gordon got past him and we were drafting along. Gordon gets underneath me on the tri-oval and gets down on the apron and we have this big race going into turn one. Ricky Rudd got the car tore up going into one, and I had him down on the apron. Somebody had to get out of the gas to keep from causing one hell of a wreck, and I lost the race right there. That was a race I remember. Looking back on it right now, I should have just stayed on the throttle, stayed on the bottom and forced him to make some type of maneuver. Anyway, that was a frustrating race to lose. I thought I had the Daytona 500 won there."

WITH THE RULES LIKE THEY ARE, WOULD IT MEAN AS MUCH TO WIN DAYTONA 500?

"Yeah, no matter what the rules are, these things are so hard to win it's incredible. To win the Daytona 500 would be a huge thing for me. People say would you rather win the championship or the Daytona 500. I have to think about that one hard. I want to win another title, but I've already won one. I've never won the Daytona 500. That would be a big feather in my cap to win the race. I think I'd rather win the doggone Daytona 500 rather than the championship even though the championship pays a lot of money. I'll probably wake up tomorrow morning and change my mind on that decision, but the Daytona 500 is such a special race."

DOES IT REACH A POINT WHERE YOU SAY 'THIS IS THE YEAR I'M GOING TO WIN DAYTONA 500?'

"Absolutely. I think that's what Dale Earnhardt did every single year he went down there before he won the race. He kept beating on it, and he had a bunch of highs and lows like I did. I remember Earnhardt leading the race going into turn three and the tire blows. I remember me leading me leading the 500 with 10 laps to go and getting passed. I remember a lot of close calls in the 500. The year he won the 500 in 1998, I thought I was going to win that race. A caution flag came out, we pitted, he beat us out and he won. I've had a lot of close calls, but you've just got to keep beating on it until you get it. I used to go down to that place and have nothing but bad luck. Daytona has been real good to me. We've had good cars and a good chance to win that race every time we go now."

DID THE TEAM SELL YOU ON SWITCH TO DODGE?

"I'd been with Pontiac a long time, and I won a lot of races with Pontiac. Then we switched to Ford in '94 and we won a lot of races with Ford. We fulfilled our contract, and I think we made everybody happy. For Pete's sakes, I got a great Pontiac dealership. I sell cars there now. I've got a great Ford store. I do business with all these people. When the contract was up and I knew what NASCAR was going to do with all these cars, they're going to cut the bodies off and change everything around and knowing Mr. Penske has got a big involvement with Chrysler. Chrysler came with an offer on the table that they'd like us to be their team. With a lot of excitement, they were wanting Team Penske to be with 'em. After we looked at that, toured the facility, looked at the engineering staff - and we were completely blown away with the engineering they had available - I got real excited with that. We decided if we were going to make a change it was absolutely the perfect time because NASCAR was changing everything. Those are a few of the reasons that caused us to make the change.

"Another thing for me, some people might disagree, but we've had the Ford for a long, long time. We've got one of the most premiere engine companies in the world that produces unbelievable horsepower, but we felt like we came to a point where we were just starting to make baby steps with the Ford engine, very, very small gains, not the gains we hoped we could make. About five years ago in Sears Point, Calif., we were really leading the charge on engine development and stuff. I broke the track record, sat on the pole and NASCAR took the engine and tore it all apart and laid it on the floor in the garage. Everybody saw what we were doing. They went back and copied the pieces and parts and all of a sudden a lot of the big teams horsepower came up. The huge advantage we thought we had from all the testing and work we'd done got given to everybody else free. It got to where the advantage I thought we had in horsepower started slipping. The gains were good, but they were too tiny. I really thought we had that Ford engine tapped out to its potential. There was a little more left in it, but we got the new Dodge engine and started working on it, and I'll tell you we've been real surprised and real happy with what we've seen out of that engine.

"I don't think there's going to be any learning curve. If I've got a learning curve, it's going to be the same for everybody. I'm taking the engine and putting it out of the picture. The power is already there. We feel like the reliability is already there. Now we're just going to have to go to the racetrack and alter the springs and shocks to accommodate this new body."

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TURNING THE FIRST LAP IN A DODGE?

"I was at Louisville, Ky., testing a brand new Dodge. I asked Billy Wilburn, my crew chief, to get a car ready like I was going to race, not just a test piece but a real hotrod and a real engine to let me know. I would put it through its paces. It ran real fast. It accelerated real hard. It had good mid-range power and good top-end power. It had everything I was looking for. Ryan (teammate Newman) did a lot of testing also. He reported the same things I reported. We were reporting times within half a tenth or a tenth of each other on what we thought we'd gained. We both left happy. We went to Daytona and had a great test down there and were real happy. We had a good test at Louisville. Ryan has been to Nashville testing. He's been to College Station, Texas, and he's seeing everything I'm seeing and it's all positive. Although I will tell you that our competition is seeing some of the same things in the new Chevy versus the old Chevy. We've definitely both got the cars quicker. I feel like this year's package is faster than last year's package, and it sounds to me like the Chevrolets are close to the same thing we're reporting."

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE DAYTONA 500 RUN AT NIGHT?

"I don't want to run the Daytona 500 at night. There are a lot of races I'd like to run at night because these three-day events we go to, a lot of times I think the event is more dramatic at night. The Daytona 500 to me is just a big happening. Everybody always compares it to Super Bowl weekend. It's something that goes on for two weeks and it leads up to this big race. It's been that way for a long time, and I wouldn't want to change anything when it comes to a race like that. The Firecracker 400 (Pepsi 400) or whatever they're calling that thing now at night is a really good deal. I love running those things at night. The Bud Shootout, I think that'll be real dramatic at night, but man, not the Daytona 500. It's just too doggone big to move that race around. The Saturday night races are great. I think a lot of people would like to see more Saturday night races because the tracks are cooler at night. It's nicer for the race fans, and if we get a rainout on Saturday night we have Sunday. It's much easier for a fan to get home after the event. Instead of having to drive home on Sunday night and going to work on Monday morning."

HOW MUCH INPUT DID YOU HAVE IN MAKING DECISION TO SWITCH TO DODGE?

"I had a lot of input. Roger came up with the idea first. It was driven a lot by his businesses. He's one of the largest DaimlerChrysler distributors in the world. Me, Ryan, Don Miller, John Erickson and Walt Zarnaky and the engine shop. Those are all the people we had to convince to do it or not to do it. We sat around the table and discussed all the pros and cons, and trust me, it was a lot of decision making. We've got really good friends at Ford. We looked at the engineering and engine capability, aerodynamic help, the body change and all these things before we made the decision, and those are the reasons we made the decision."

WILL THE BUDWEISER SHOOTOUT BE A TWO-STOP RACE?

"That's definitely going to be a two-stop race. It's going to be close at that because most of the cars only run 35 laps at the most. It's going to be interesting. We'll see how that works out."

HAVE YOUR DRIVING SKILLS HELPED YOU ACHIEVE THE PERCISION IT TAKES TO BE A JET PILOT?

"I think that's helped. A lot of people don't understand my piloting. I've got 9,000 hours total time. That's more than most commercial pilots. I started flying in 1983. I hold a private pilot multi-engine instrument rating, Learjet rated type captain. I fly quite a bit. I'm real excited about aviation. I've been to flight school now. I just left two weeks ago after going back for training. I think the concentration it takes driving a race car and running a business is the same as when I get in that airplane. When I get in an airplane, I've got to be totally focused. My mind can't be drifting around, especially in weather. If I've got clear weather out there, that's one thing. I've got great guys who work with me. We pay a lot of attention to our maintenance programs. We use the best shops in the United States to work on the plane."

COMPARE YOUR ROOKIE YEAR IN '84 TO RYAN NEWMAN'S SEASON AS A ROOKIE IN 2002

"My rookie season compared to Ryan's you can't even compare 'em. I had a decent at best first year when I won the rookie of the year. I was literally a rookie. I was brand new in that car. I didn't do any ARCA racing. I didn't do any Busch racing. I just got right in the Cup car out of an ASA car, and trust me, that was a huge change. I hit about everything out there. I had a lot of wrecks. I had many great performances and many miserable performances. The second half of the year was much stronger than the first. Ryan came out of the box running real good. I think we gave him the equipment and trained him good to get him ready for Winston Cup. We did a lot of work preparing him for the first year. We ran him in all those ARCA races and Busch races. We hired Buddy Baker to help him. Nowadays, you can't do it like I did it. You've got to come out of the box flying. You've got to come out of the box with a driver you feel that can win because these sponsors we've got on the car expect immediate performance, so you really can't compare the '84 year to this year. The sponsor is the big difference. If the car doesn't perform, then it's ridiculous for the sponsor to stay with the car."

WHAT ARE THE BIG QUESTIONS OR UNKNOWNS GOING INTO DAYTONA?

"I think there are a lot of big questions going in there. I think a lot of people have got their eyeballs on the 12 car and the 2 car because of the big change from Ford to Dodge and they're dying to see how the cars are going to perform. I think the other thing they're going to see, they want to see how close the cars are going to run together. I think they're going to run bumper-to-bumper because there's no difference in the rules from car to car hardly. There are a lot of unknowns out there. How will the fuel cell work with the race? Is it going to keep the cars closer together? It's going to be a big year. A lot of good drivers are out there. I think Greg Biffle is going to run full time. This will be Ryan's second year. He's not a rookie and he's a legitimate candidate like the rest of us to win the championship. It's going to be exciting."

WHAT'S YOUR REACTION TO WHAT NASCAR IS TRYING TO DO WITH FANS IN THE GARAGE?

"I've got to commend them for it. I love my race fans, no doubt about that. I'm one of a handful of drivers who goes out to the merchandise trailers every Saturday after practice and signs for two hours to meet the fans, hear what they've got to say, sign their favorite items. I've got to tell you, in that garage area it got to the point where it was just ridiculous. There were people in there who had nothing to do with racing. How they got in there, I have no clue. They were there solely to get as many autographs packed in one bag, get as many die cast cars as they could. A lot of guys were getting stuff signed and taking them to the hobby shops and selling all the stuff. It got to be where you couldn't work. It was terrible. It got to be where you just wanted to lock yourself in the trailer. In that garage isn't the time for autographs. Will what they've done make a big dent? I don't think it'll make a big dent for me personally or for any driver personally because the time the track goes hot, I'll be inside the car. When it's not hot, that's when I'm out of the car and that's when all the fans are in the garage. We've got to walk before we can run. Where it will help is when we come off the race track in practice. We won't have masses of people standing in the garage area. The cars will be able to maneuver and get in and out of the garage area better. It'll be safer for everybody. People will still be able to get all the photos and autographs they need. They're talking about posting no autograph signs in the garage area. I hope they do that. I've been suggesting they do that. I think that would help a lot. We welcome fans in the garage area to take pictures, enjoy the experience, look at the drivers. When autograph times are available, then do it, but we've got to get some work done in these garage areas."

HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR DAYTONA 500?

"I find myself at the shop everyday, if not every other day, looking at stuff, looking at how the wind tunnel things are going. I've gotten in and out of every car. I've been working with my guys, and I've been trying to get my seats as low as I can in the car. I've had a problem with these speedway cars sitting too high because we travel them so much in the corners. I have this year, probably more than in the past, been mechanically aware of what is going on with the car. We've got three cars ready to go for the Daytona 500. Two of them are in the wind tunnel today. I'm really getting my head in the game when it comes to this Daytona 500 because I really want to have a good hotrod down there. I feel like we've got one already. We had one when we left the test session, but there's several things we've learned to make the car faster yet. In the next day or so, I'll be putting my checklist together and predicting how fast the car should run when we get there. I've got a good idea right now. Outside of mechanical preparation going into it, there's a lot of scheduling getting done for sponsor appearances. There's a lot of pre-2003 stuff going on.

"It's hard for me to get much more hands-on than I already am, but if I can find another two percent left in me that I didn't know was there, I'm going to try to be even more involved yet. This is Billy and I's second year together and I thought the last part of last year he came on like gangbusters. We had some strong performances, the Brickyard 400, the Firecracker (Pepsi) 400, second place at Phoenix, we almost won at Bristol. They built me great cars and Billy made great calls. They built me a brand new Bristol car coming off the service plate right now. One thing people overlook about what this switch to Dodge did for us... If we were still a Ford team, we'd take the cars and fresh 'em up a little bit, but switching to Dodge we built all brand new cars. They're all brand new, all fresh engines, all high-horsepower stuff, and it looks strong."

WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM RYAN NEWMAN LAST YEAR?

"I probably learned more from Ryan than he learned from me. The big thing I learned was their approach to setting up the car. They rely a lot on the computer. He went to college to be an engineer and he relies on his teaching a lot. Matt Borland does the same thing. They look at the data and line their car up 100 percent by the data sheet. It was like a big switch came on last year. The big super computer kicked in for us last year, and I'm relying a lot more on what we're learning on our instrumentations, our wind tunnel data, a lot of the data we've received from a lot of things. It's a lot more technology-driven sport now than it was in the past."

-dodge-

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Rusty Wallace , Greg Biffle , Buddy Baker