Wallace lets performance plead his case

Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2000

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In a season in which no driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series has dominated, Rusty Wallace has decided it's time to let his performance plead his case.

His victory at Sunday's race at the Michigan Speedway was his third of the season tied with Tony Stewart for the most on the stock car circuit this year and it seemed finally to shake one of the most energetic drivers from a three-year funk.

''Three wins, seven poles, over 1,200 laps led that feels pretty good,'' Wallace said. ''I hope the fans enjoy that because, I tell you, I was really getting tired of people saying, 'When are you going to win another race? You know, you've only won once (in each of the previous seasons).'"

Wallace is finding his stride at the right time. Not only is he coming off a dominating performance, but he also is headed to a racetrack where he's always a favorite the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Last March, Wallace won the pole, led the most laps and won the Food City 500 at Bristol. Since then, he's led the most laps at Martins ville, Va., Richmond, Va., Long Pond, Pa., and Indianapolis, only to lose each of those races with poor late-race pit strategy.

''I met this guy at hospitality (last Sunday at Michigan), and the guy says, 'You lead all day long and then you fade back to nothing.' I thought, that's not a good way to start the day,'' Wallace said. ''But he's a customer, and I had to be nice. Hopefully, he left the track saying, 'Hey, that's what he's supposed to do.'"

When Wallace gets on a roll, few are faster. He won 10 races in 1993 and eight more in 1994. Those banner seasons came aboard a Pontiac Grand Prix.

He switched to Fords in 1995 and has struggled to find his stride again. He had two wins in '95, five in 1996 and only one in each of the three following seasons.

With three victories, Wallace also is ready to make a second-half charge toward the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship. He's currently in fifth place, 100 points behind fourth-place Jeff Burton and only 352 points behind series leader Bobby Labonte.

''I see myself in the points race,'' Wallace said. ''I really do. I think we're one of the contenders. Some of the other guys need to have bad luck. I had some bad luck over there at Watkins Glen (N.Y.), and Tony Stewart passed me (in the points race). He crashed here (at Michigan) in turn one, so we gained a lot of points today. So it's not over, that's for sure.

''We're running strong and keeping the pressure up on these guys. You never know. At the end of the day, we might be close enough and get it done.''

Wallace also has eight top-five finishes and 13 top 10s this year. But to catch Labonte, the leader will have to veer away from a run of consistency that includes 12 top-five finishes and 16 top 10s.

With Wallace's overdue success now coming more naturally, does he consider himself one of the dominant drivers on the circuit? He prefers to dodge the question.

''I'll let my record stand for itself,'' he said. ''I hope that you guys think that we're going to be one of the dominant teams out there. I know we work really, really hard on our engine program; we're in the wind tunnel a lot working with our car, and our guys are practicing their pit stops a lot.''

And it couldn't have come at a better time.

''We won early in the year at Bristol, and that was a real cool performance car,'' Wallace said. ''And after that, we've had a lot of good runs. I know I started the year off and said, 'Man, the way competition is in NASCAR nowadays, if you can win two races, man, you're really doing something.' To sit here with three wins right now is one thing, but to top it off with those seven poles and all those laps led, I find that pretty impressive.

Wallace's resurgence comes in a season when he had to sort through the nuances of the new Ford Taurus and a new generation racing tire built by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. In addition, his race team, Penske South, has developed its own chassis instead of buying one from a vendor. That allows each car to be built to Wallace's specification instead of adjusting a pre-built chassis.

''This car (at Michigan) is the new Penske chassis,'' he said. ''I'm really happy with the performance of it. I hope that we're going to be one of the guys out there that other teams say, 'Boy, those guys are doing great. Maybe they'll get some more victories.' ''

''Now I'm going back to my favorite track, a track where I won earlier this year. I have a lot of friends there, and I have my (four) car dealerships there. If we win (Saturday night's goracing.com 500), there'll be one hell of a party, I guarantee you.''

REACH Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.

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