BRISTOL, Tenn. Nothing makes Rusty Wallace angrier than being written off as a has-been. In his final season as a driver, Wallace is determined to go out a winner.
So imagine his displeasure, after qualifying third for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, when a reporter told him very few people expected him to be in the top 10 of the points standings in his 22nd and final year of full-time NASCAR racing.
A pained look crossed his face for just a second. Then he composed himself, and gracefully continued.
''I understand why they would think that based on last year's points and what happened,'' Wallace said. ''I expect myself to be in the top five, top eight at least. I feel that good about our cars.
''That's a disturbing statement you just said, but hopefully we can change some peoples' minds. A lot of people have a lot of opinions.''
Opinions are usually based on facts, and the facts are Wallace has struggled to be competitive the past two seasons. A former series champion, he finished in the top 10 in the standings for 10 consecutive years. But the streak was snapped in 2003 when he finished 14th.
Wallace was 16th last season, but won a race to break a drought of 105 races without a victory. That skid was the longest, and most agonizing of his career. Before it, Wallace had scored at least one win in 16 consecutive seasons.
But Wallace heads into Sunday's race in ninth place in the standings. He opened the year with consecutive 10th place finishes and is buoyed by his third-place qualifying run here.
He'll be looking for his 10th career victory at Bristol on Sunday, and scoring one will prove that his tank is still full.
''I feel like I could go this year, next year and another year,'' he said. ''I feel like I'm as aggressive as heck behind the wheel and I feel like we can win every single week, and that's how I feel about it.''
Wallace will have a handful of drivers to contend with at the start of the race, including Elliott Sadler, who will start from the pole, and Jeff Gordon, who starts fourth right alongside Wallace.
Gordon once bumped Wallace out of his way with one lap to go to steal a Bristol win away from him.
And Sadler, who scored his first career victory here in 2001, was the most confident driver in the garage following qualifying.
''We're 100 percent in race trim,'' Sadler said.
That will put him at an advantage over some of the other drivers in the race because of NASCAR's new rule in which cars are impounded after certain qualifying sessions.
Before impounding began, teams tried all different setups for qualifying. Then they would have to rework the car to get it ready to race.
But under impounding, teams can't touch the cars after their qualifying lap so they know they have to be ready. Sadler's Robert Yates Racing team put a piece of tape across the grill of his car to improve the front downforce and sent him out to qualify.
Before Sunday's race, they'll pull the tape off and send him on his way.
Sadler said the new rules make for a much more restful night of sleep.
''You can worry yourself to death on Saturday night, thinking about last-minute changes to get ready for Sunday,'' Sadler said. ''It's so much better just to come here, go through race trim, run it for two hours, and what you've got is what you've got. I've got the best car I've ever had here in my life, as far as on race trim.''
He's also got a day off Saturday. With no practice and the Nextel Cup garage closed to teams all day Saturday, everyone was looking to fill their free time.
Many made the 3-hour drive back to North Carolina, while some drivers hopped into their planes and headed off for a night of fun.
Sadler had his pole-winning celebration carefully planned a healthy dinner, sleeping in, then watching North Carolina play Michigan State in the NCAA tournament.
''I might stay in my pajamas most of the day,'' he said. ''I'm gonna watch (Dale Jarrett) run in the Busch race and my Tar Heels are in the Final Four, so it's a pretty exciting weekend so far for me.''
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