Approaching the midway point of the 26-race schedule to qualify for the new "Chase for the Championship", veteran driver Rusty Wallace is on the outside looking in. But the 21-year veteran of NASCAR's elite division is hoping to recapture...
Approaching the midway point of the 26-race schedule to qualify for the new "Chase for the Championship", veteran driver Rusty Wallace is on the outside looking in.
But the 21-year veteran of NASCAR's elite division is hoping to recapture some of the magic he had at Dover International Speedway a decade ago to put him back in the hunt for the NEXTEL Cup.
On Friday, Wallace was fourth fastest in qualifying for Sunday's MBNA 400 (1:00 p.m. Eastern on FX). It's his best qualifying effort of the season.
"It was fast off the truck," admitted Wallace, who set the qualifying record at Dover in 1999 and leads all current drivers with five poles at the one mile oval. "The thing I'm happy about is we had an hour's worth of race runs in practice and an hour's worth of qualifying runs. Right now we're on track - all systems are go."
Wallace won three straight races at the "Monster Mile" in 1993 and 1994, including a classic clash with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the fall race in 1994. The rivals battled throughout the 500-mile marathon with Wallace's Ford edging Earnhardt's Chevy in a yellow-flag ending. Earnhardt went on to win the season championship, 80 points ahead of Wallace.
"We fought it out all race long and had the lead when the caution flag flew at the end," Wallace reflected. "We were running out of gas and had a flat rear tire at the same time, but we still won the thing. There we were, being pushed by the crew into Victory Lane, with the gas tank bone dry and a flat right rear tire with all the rubber shredded completely off the wheel. It was a special win."
Under the new championship system, the top-10 cars and any other drivers within 400 points of the leader after 26 races will be eligible to compete for the NEXTEL Cup. Wallace is 13th in the standings, 118 points out of 10th place and 417 points behind the leader.
"Well, it's on my mind at least a little, I'll admit," said Wallace, whose teammate Ryan Newman swept both races at Dover last year. "It's really too early to get overly concerned, but it certainly does add some new suspense into the equation."
Wallace won the championship in 1989 and finished in the top-10 every year for a decade before a 14th place finish in 2003. He partnered with Roger Penske in 1991 and still desperately wants to give the legendary car owner his first NASCAR championship.
"Right now we're really not focusing on anything but getting us some more wins, more top fives and top 10's," Wallace said. "But, you can't help keeping a watchful eye on that end of the deal because it's so important to make the cut either by finishing in the top 10 or by closing the gap to less than 400."
Wallace is looking to put his blue deuce in victory lane for the second time this year. At Martinsville in April, he ended a dreadful winless streak that stretched over two full seasons. He's managed just one top-10 finish since then, a 10th place finish last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600.
"We have some great tracks coming up for us in the next few weeks and we're looking to put some more big numbers on the board beginning this weekend at Dover," Wallace said. "If we can get the finishes we're confident that we'll be capable of getting the next few weeks, the points situation will take care of itself."
After a rough start to the season, Wallace challenged his team to step up their efforts. The Miller Light Dodge was 23rd in the point standings after a 29th place finish at Darlington in March. The team rallied for three straight top-five finishes, including the win at Martinsville. Wallace suggests that all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place for a run at the championship chase.
"We just need to stay focused and keep doing what we're doing," Wallace said. "The guys are giving me some great racecars and engines. Our pit crew reeled out two stops down in the 12-second bracket (last week) on Sunday night. Larry Carter is proving just how good a crew chief he is and is making all the right calls on pit road. We just have to keep it up and keep our nose to the grindstone and we'll be okay."