Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 1:33PM; Updated: Friday April 1, 2005 5:12PM
Rusty Wallacce has nine wins at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
I've always liked how Darrell Waltrip describes racing at Bristol, which is where the Cup boys will be running on Sunday. Waltrip has more career wins (12) at Bristol Motor Speedway than any other NASCAR driver in history, so the sliver-tongued DW clearly has a little insight on what it takes to win the battle of attrition that Bristol always becomes. "You gotta be a wild child to win at Bristol," Waltrip told me last year. "There's so little time to react that you need to drive with a reckless abandon. You gotta be aggressive to the point where you'll almost take yourself out."
The .533-mile oval at Bristol, with its 36-degree banked turns, is universally regarded among the drivers as one of the best tracks on the Cup circuit. As Waltrip noted, it rewards aggressive driving more than any other venue. The cars are constantly banging into each other as they slingshot around the banked track. Because the racing quarters are so tight, it's easy to get caught up in someone else's wreck and go several laps down, which is why this is a tough race to forecast.
Most recently Kurt Busch has dominated Bristol, which is NASCAR's second shortest track, by winning four of the last six races. Dale EarnhardtJr. , whose 2005 season is rapidly falling apart, has also been stout at Bristol; last August Little E became the first driver to ever win the Busch race and the Cup race in the same weekend. But on Sunday I'll be keeping a close eye on 48-year-old Rusty Wallace, who's retiring at the end of the season. Wallace is my pick to take the checkered flag at the Food City 500.
It's true that Wallace has won a grand total of one race in his last 138 starts, but this weekend he has a powerful force on his side: History. Wallace, after all, has captured the checkered flag nine times at Bristol, which makes him the winningest active Cup driver at the track. Why is he so good here? The 21-year veteran is a master bumper and grinder, a skill that serves him well on the carnival bumper car ride that is Bristol.
Plus there's this: Wallace should have a better opportunity to win on Sunday than he's had in recent years at the track -- he last won at Bristol five summers ago -- because his entire team is now as strong as it's been in recent memory. Wallace hasn't been a serious player in the Cup series since 2000, when he won four races (including two at Bristol) and had 20 top-10 finishes. And last year Rusty looked, well, pretty damn rusty -- he only totaled 11 top 10s. Because of his struggles, most people in the garage during January testing believed that in 2005 Wallace would just slowly fade away rather than leave the sport in a blaze of glory.
But that hasn't happened; the last lap of his career is off to a fine start. Wallace already has two top 10s and is currently ninth in the points standings. What's different about Wallace this year as opposed to last? Well, he appears reinvigorated. His trademark white-knuckled intensity is back, probably because he can see the sunset of retirement on the horizon. "I ask myself why would I retire and its because I don't like running 36 races," Wallace explained earlier this season. "I hate running 36 races. I don't like being away from home that much."
Wallace is still looking to have a breakout race this season, one that would announce his arrival as a legitimate championship contender. I have a hunch it'll happen Sunday.
Because I'm off to an Earnhardtesque 0-4 start when it comes to forecasting race winners this season, I dialed up the SI headquarters in Midtown Manhattan recently and called for reinforcements. So starting this week, SI senior editor Rich O'Brien, who is the Richard Petty (sans mustache, cowboy hat and belt buckle) of motorsports editors in this country, will weigh in every Thursday in this space. From the hallowed halls of the 31st floor in the Time & Life Building, Rich will offer up his projected race winner.
Who does Rich like this week? Certainly not Rusty Wallace; he's taking KurtBusch. "Rusty Wallace? Hey, I say it's Lars's Last Call," says O'Brien. "Sure, Rusty ruled Bristol -- back in the first Bush administration. When it comes to Thunder Valley, this is the Busch administration, and I have to go with Kurt. He had his once-every-two-dozen-races poor finish at Atlanta. You gotta figure he'll be back and hungry and, as reigning champ, the one thing you know he wants is a race win."
Rich and I will keep a running points total of where our picks finish each week. This, no doubt, will be a grand experiment: Can a guy who's getting sunburn at trackside most weeks predict race winners any better than a guy who, most weeks, is in the bubble of Manhattan? Stay tuned.