DOVER, Del. (Sept. 16, 1998) How does Miller Lite Team Penske driver Rusty Wallace and his team handle a period of 54 consecutive races without experiencing a Victory Lane visit? Very well, thank you. Maybe it has something to do with...
DOVER, Del. (Sept. 16, 1998) How does Miller Lite Team Penske driver Rusty Wallace and his team handle a period of 54 consecutive races without experiencing a Victory Lane visit?
Very well, thank you.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that even though they may be lacking in wins, the fruits of their 1998 labor include 11 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes and four pole positions.
"That's a big plus mentally and from a team morale standpoint when you can continuously go out there and put those kinds of numbers on the board," said Wallace, who hasn't finished worse than eighth in nine of the last 10 races (and has a 7.5 average finish for that period). "It would be a totally different situation if we were struggling ... and that is definitely not the case. We're coming into each and every race with the attitude that we can win the thing. We know we're going to be a factor every time they throw the green flag. That's the way that I feel. That's the way that Robin (Pemberton, crew chief) feels and that's the way that every soul around us feels. So, while we may be lacking in first-place finishes, we still have been able to maintain a winning attitude.
"We're qualifying better than we ever have, I mean ever, including the 1989 championship season. The most poles that we've ever won in a year was the '89 season when we won four. The pole we won (last) Friday at Richmond was already our fourth of the season and we still have several tracks left to run where we can win more. That's not the same as winning races and I'd gladly swap some of those poles for race wins, but qualifying that well keeps us all pumped up for each and every race. It's a heck of a turnaround from last season when we had to use a ton (five) of provisionals. We're one of only a few (four) teams that haven't had to use a provisional all year long. We've really stepped up the qualifying end of the program and we're proud of that."
And what about the big turnaround from the 1997 season?
"You know it's kinda' weird of how that affects you ... when you've had a season like we did last year," Wallace said. "After experiencing that degree of disappointment, it's pretty easy for the guys to get fired up ... even over little things. It seems like every time we turn around somebody is bringing up some kind of comparison to what happened last year. When you had 11 DNFs, qualifying problems and all, everybody is super aware of how different things are. Robin's real good about using all of that to keep the guys pumped up."
The '98-versus -97 comparison gives Pemberton plenty of ammunition to keep his troops fired up. They already have the 11 top-fives and 17 top-10s after 25 races compared to eight top-fives and 12 top-10s after all 32 races last season. They've only had two DNFs compared to the devastating 11 last season. They have an 8.9 average start and a 10.8 average finish this season versus 18.7 for both average starts and average finishes for last season. The number of poles, the points situation (fourth this season versus 14th at this time last year) and the overall consistency all provide tools for Pemberton to use.
"There are all kinds of facts and figures out there that we can use to keep things in the right perspective ... even for the driver," Pemberton said. "Rusty and everybody else on this team know that our consistency ... running in the top five like we have will produce wins. I keep on telling them that if you knock on the door long and hard enough, you're bound to get through to the other side sooner or later.
"The best drivers out there have experienced streaks of their own. I was with Mark (Martin and Roush Racing) when we first got that deal going. It wasn't until the second Rockingham race of our second year (57 races) that we finally won. Mark went through another big winless streak a couple of years ago, too. I know they went through the whole '96 season without winning. (The record books show that Martin experienced a 42-race period from 10/8/95 until 5/4/97 without winning.) Look at Mark and those guys now. And what about (Dale) Earnhardt? His situation before the Daytona win (59-race winless streak) had Rusty himself telling all the media guys that it was only a matter of time before Dale won again.
"Rusty's seen all of those things and he knows we're bound to win our share as long as we keep on doing what we're doing. Believe me, the driver's desire and focus on winning hasn't diminished at all. From what I've seen, it's probably at an all-time high."
So what's Wallace's attitude entering this weekend's MBNA Gold 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway?
"We started out the season with the goal of winning our 50th race during this the 50th anniversary year of NASCAR and in our hearts and minds we think we can still do that," Wallace said. "I know that the time is growing shorter to get the job done, but each race from here on out offers us the opportunity to add to the wins. And Dover is our next opportunity."
Should Wallace reach his goal of getting that 50th win this season, it will tie him with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for the eighth spot on the sport's all-time win list. Wallace has won at least one race on the NASCAR Winston Cup tour for 12 consecutive seasons ('86 through '97). Only Ricky Rudd's record of 15 consecutive seasons tops Wallace's active streak.
Source: NASCAR Online