Bring on Daytona
Former series champ Wallace putting the pieces together
By B. Duane Cross, CNNSI.com
Paced by the staccato beats of the years passing by, Rusty Wallace continues to work toward a second Winston Cup championship. It's been 11 seasons since Wallace won the series points title. Last year, Wallace won nine poles and four races and led more than 600 miles -- more than any one else in the sport.
"Last year was a good year with all those laps led and all that," Wallace said, "but we have all the intentions in the world of winning that championship this year. If we can continue what we had last year, we'll have a hell of a team this year.
"It bothers me I haven't won a title since '89, but there are a lot of things that can bug you," he said. "The last three Daytona 500s, I was in a position to win all three of them. I felt like I threw the Brickyard 400 away in 1995 and, doggone it, I thought I had it last year and Bobby Labonte passed me with 12 laps to go.
"No doubt I want to win the championship," said Wallace, who finished seventh in the points standings in 2000, "but those are two big races that I want to win, too."
Wallace has won at least one every year since 1986, but last year was the first time in four seasons he'd won more than once. He won his only career championship in '89, but adding a second title is just one of the goals he has left in a career that includes 53 victories.
The 2001 season will be the fourth for Ford's Taurus model, which was rebuffed by NASCAR in a bid to get a new cylinder head approved for its engines this season. After testing at Daytona International Speedway in January, Wallace felt confident as the Daytona 500 approaches.
"I'm all concerned about my qualifying package," Wallace said. "This blue car is the car I ran all of last year and it's my 500 car that I've had the last couple of races and run real good. But I can't get the thing to qualify as fast as I want to. But this other car I've been running in the draft is brand new."
Among the 25 posted test speeds during Day 3 of the Ford testing, Wallace posted a top speed of 187.719 mph. Kurt Busch of Roush Racing was second at 187.496 and the Robert Yates car driven by Dale Jarrett was third at 187.332.
"We tested that car against this car in qualifying speeds and the old car is about a half-tenth faster, but this new one we put our race setup in it and it just hauls in the draft," Wallace said. "It really runs good. I got to the back of that draft and drove right to the front of it. It sniffs a little air and that sucker takes off, but by themselves these babies will not go. You get a plug check and it feels like somebody throws a parachute out. When you get a plug check your body almost lunges forward it stops so fast.
"There's an incredible amount of drag out there, but I think the 500 is gonna be something else," he added. "I think you're gonna be able to throw a blanket over the entire field when they cross the line. For the fans that's gonna be good, but for us it's not. I think it's gonna be like bumper cars out there, but we'll see what happens."
In 35 career starts at Daytona International Speedway, Wallace has zero wins, zero poles and only four top-five finishes, all in the past seven races.
"People used to be surprised to see us do well on the big tracks, and now they're shocked if we're not out there running up front," said Wallace, a short-track and road-course aficionado. "It's extremely satisfying for me personally to finally have all the necessary pieces of the puzzle that we were missing for so many years.
"I can't wait for another crack at winning at Daytona."
Newspaper reports and The Associated Press contributed to this story.