- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DARLINGTON, S.C. -- During an offseason filled with changes at Rusty Wallace Racing, David Stremme seemed to fall somewhere under the radar. Sure he was going to drive the team's second car in a majority of the Nationwide Series events this year, but that really didn't seem like a big deal.
Most observers were focused on whether Steve Wallace, the owner's son, would start to settle in during his second full season, or whether he'd continue to struggle, with wrecks often the result. Others wondered how Chase Austin, once hailed as a prime candidate to help diversify the sport, would fare the times he was in the No. 64 Chevrolet.
Stremme, meanwhile, was a driver in need of a ride after the 30-year-old was released by Chip Ganassi Racing's Sprint Cup team after two seasons that yielded just three top-10 finishes. Stremme, though, seems determined not to get lost in the shadows and is helping to pull RWR into the limelight for the right reasons and not only because veteran drivers are chastising the 20-year-old Wallace.
The offseason saw RWR make the switch to Chevrolets, while veteran crew chief Harold Holly was hired to work with Wallace. Stremme, who'd been friends with Wallace for several years, is someone who can offer guidance to Wallace, and the two appear to mesh well off the track.
The results are starting to show as well. Despite giving way to road racer Max Papis at Mexico City, Stremme sits 10th in points with two top-5 and seven top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Wallace, meanwhile, has two top-5s, three top-10s and sits 11th in points. He's also finished all but the races at Daytona and Talladega, where he was swept up in accidents.
Dale Ferguson, who joined the team late last season and became Stremme's crew chief with this season's second race, knows the driver's played a big role in the team's transformation.
"David's as levelheaded and as easygoing a driver as you're ever going to work with," Ferguson said. "We can sit down and talk and in five minutes we'll have some ideas on what we want to do to the car when it's not exactly right."
But it's the talking between the drivers that's really paying off.
"David's calmness, David's leadership and the several years he has Cup driving and in the Nationwide Series, he helps Steven every day, every time we go on the racetrack," Ferguson said. "He works with Steven and tells him everything he can to possibly help him go around these racetracks.
"David is an awesome teammate that way. He cares. He cares about this whole race organization."
If the last two weeks are any indication, the pieces are starting to fall into place as Wallace has a pair of top-5s at Richmond and Darlington, while Stremme has finished sixth in both events. Stremme will yield to Papis on the road course and to Austin for several events, so he won't be making a charge through the point standings, but he still has high goals for the rest of 2008.
And even when he won't be in an RWR car, he'll be plenty busy with the recently completed deal to serve as the test driver for Penske Racing. It's certainly not the year Stremme envisioned for 2008 when he initially made the move to Cup, but he's trying to make the most of it.
"I look, on our worst day, we should run 15th, no worse than that -- there should be no excuses," Stremme said. "But we should run top 10 on an average day, easy. The thing I grade ourselves off of is the other Nationwide Series teams -- we have no Cup affiliation. We beat the [Richard Childress Racing] teams at Richmond, and I felt like that was a pretty good feat for both Steven and myself."
Stremme says his biggest goal as a mentor is to just help Wallace remain calm and focused behind the wheel, something not always easy for a young driver.
"He doesn't have a whole lot of experience," Stremme said, "but I think this year he's shown a lot more of what type of driver he is -- he's maturing a lot. That guy has more heart than anybody in this garage. He gives more in the car and sometimes I have to tell him just not to give 100 percent, just give 90 and you'll get more out of the whole day.
"We're just working on things together. His feel for the race car is really good and we're able to feed off one another. From there, we'll just keep working on things."
With 64 starts in the series, Wallace feels like he knows his way around most of the tracks, so he doesn't need a lot of advice in that area. But his friendship with Stremme has made having a teammate easier.
"David's been good to work with so far, we've had some good success with both cars, so it's definitely good," Wallace said. "We understand each other, and I just feel like everything so far has been really good for us. He's a good teammate."
In a perfect world, Stremme won't remain in the Nationwide Series for long. A return to Cup is the goal and a chance to jump back into Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge in place of an injured Dario Franchitti at Talladega added fuel to the fire.
Stremme was in the running for a potential top-10 finish until getting swept up in the day's final accident. He's blunt when asked what it's like having Sundays free.
"It sucks," he said. "When I ran Talladega, I was pretty happy. But one of the [goals] I set for this year was making sure that I put myself in a good position. Obviously, Rusty's place is really good for me. I feel my style fits in very well there.
"And then we've signed that deal with Penske and I'm really happy with that because of their organization and their background. I'm trying to look at the bigger picture instead of just right around the corner."
That isn't to say he doesn't have short-term goals to achieve this season.
"This is a building year [at RWR]," Stremme said. "What I look at is if we can contend for wins and try to get a win, especially at some of the tracks where the Cup cars won't be there that weekend. Hopefully we'll have a little advantage.
"But the main thing is just to get our program better. Being an independent team is very hard. We don't have the resources [of the Cup teams], but with Harold and everybody there, I think we have a pretty good program."
One arguably made better by Stremme.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
David Stremme's arrival at Rusty Wallace Racing has been a win-win situation. Stremme is a solid 10th in Nationwide points, and the young driver he's mentoring -- Steve Wallace -- is breathing down his neck.