- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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For those who think he's ready for retirement, Mr. Wallace wants to make sure everyone understands something: He may be Rusty, but he sure isn't Dusty.
There's still plenty of gas left in Rusty Wallace's tank, and he proved that in Sunday's Food City 500 at his favorite racetrack, Bristol Motor Speedway.
"Don't be beating up on me so early, my career's not winding down," said Wallace, who is the winningest active driver at Bristol with nine career victories (the now-retired Darrell Waltrip leads all drivers with 12 wins). "I've got at least four or five more Bristols left in me."
And not only four or five more Bristols, but also a lot of racing overall.
"I'm tired of the questions, 'Hey Rusty, when are you going to quit?' 'Hey Rusty, are you getting tired of this stuff?' I just want to get the team where we've got to have it and get the job done."
Wallace came into this past weekend far lower in the standings than he'd like, sitting 23rd in points. He enjoyed some success in five early races, with strong qualifying efforts at Rockingham (fourth), Atlanta (11th) and Darlington (seventh), as well as a pair of top-10 finishes at Rockingham (seventh) and Las Vegas (10th).
On the flip side, Wallace struggled in the last two races, finishing 35th at Atlanta and 29th at Darlington (along with a 29th-place finish in the season opener at Daytona).
While those finishes haven't been anything to write home about on the surface, the savvy 47-year-old veteran says they belie the strong performance overall of his No. 2 Dodge. All he needs is one breakthrough race -- and Sunday's event may very well be just that.
"I'm excited about what I'm doing," said Wallace, who will start fourth on Sunday race behind teammate Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle. "I feel like I've been driving some of the best races I've been driving this year. We ran great at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Rockingham.
"We have no problem with speed and performance, and our qualifying has been good. Our biggest problem this year has been pit stops. They've been horrible. Instead of having 13-second stops, we've been having 17 and 18 and 19 [seconds]. Larry [crew chief Carter] is working really, really hard. If we get that fixed, we can get back with solid top-five and solid top-10 finishes, and be back as a threat to win finally. I'm confident when we get to Bristol we'll finally get it right."
Wallace has spent a career getting things right at Bristol. In his 40 career starts there, the .533-mile east Tennessee bullring has provided him one-sixth of his 54 career Cup victories, including six in the annual spring event. He also had seven poles, 20 top-five and seven other top-10 finishes before Sunday. His last Cup win at Bristol came in 2000, when he swept the two annual events at the track.
"I feel like if I'm in trouble, if I go to Bristol, I can get some reprieve," Wallace said.
And some reprieve in the standings on Sunday could be just the thing Wallace needs to get back into the mix of things. He specifically points to two weeks ago at Atlanta, when he was staring at a likely top-five finish, only to wind up a disappointing 29th.
"I had an easy top-five car at Atlanta and break a transmission," Wallace said. "I fall from sixth place in the points, where I would have ended up, all the way down to 20th. I'm looking at the positive side of it. I'm not looking at the 20th spot. Oh, you finished 29th, I'm not looking at that. I'm looking at let's get it fixed and we'll get it back.
"I'm looking here as having one of my poorest starts with points so far, but I've had one of my better starts as far as the performance with the car. The point problem is definitely because of the pit crew problems, and we failed a transmission at Atlanta running fifth and we had a DNF. It makes you think about the points when you get as low as I am in the points right now. I'm not concerned about that. I know I can spring back."
Veteran Larry Carter has been hired as crew chief to correct the pit problems in Wallace's team. But it seems that each time one problem is solved, another develops, which has contributed to the overall frustration level on the team. Wallace is getting the job done on the racetrack for the most part, but the efforts on pit road are leaving much to be desired.
"I come down pit road and I go, 'Oh God, I hope this is going to be OK,' " Wallace lamented. "I used to come down pit road going, 'Oh, this is going to be great because I know I'll gain three or four spots.' Now I just want to maintain."
Wallace clearly isn't happy with the performance of his team during pit stops, and he wants to see improvement -- soon.
"I know tensions on my end are growing. I'm not real patient when it comes to this because we should be able to get this, and we will. You have no idea what we're doing down at the shop. We're on this big time to get this pit crew fixed quick. I said, 'I'm going to Bristol, one of my favorite tracks. No way in the world I can go to Bristol with this problem, so let's get it handled.'
"We've got a great crew chief. I feel like I'm driving the car good, and the cars are handling good. We've got easy top-five, top-10 cars every race. We've just got to get these fast stops. Nowadays when you get behind, it's hard to drive through the field. If you've got a car that's strong enough to drive through the field, then you're the fastest car on the track."
For his part, Carter feels bad that poor pit performance -- particularly when it comes to tire changers, of which the team has gone through four different ones in the first five races -- is negating many of the positive things Wallace is doing on the racetrack.
"Rusty Wallace has won races, and he's capable of winning races today," Carter said. "Last week, he was capable of getting the job done, but we haven't been getting it done on pit road for him. I know that's very frustrating for him to have a car that's capable of winning and just not getting it done on pit road. We've struggled with it. We've changed a lot, and we're really just one position away from having a real good crew."
If Wallace could have written a perfect script for Sunday's race, it would be to finally see his team's pit problems resolved, but more importantly, to earn his first win in nearly three seasons (the last one was April 2001 at California Speedway). And that script almost played out, as Wallace finished second to Kurt Busch on Sunday and jumped to 17th in points.
"I've been going for two years now with the attention level pretty strong," Wallace said. "I'm used to winning, and I'm not getting to where I want. I believe in myself. I'm trying to surround myself with the right team, and stuff like that. I'm always optimistic."
And when he returns to Bristol twice a year, Wallace's optimism is arguably at some of the highest levels it reaches all season.
"Bristol's always been like a home track to me," Wallace said. "I've always been quick to call it my favorite racetrack. The fact that I won my first race there back in 1986, the fact that we've always had so much success there, the fact that we have such a big following of race fans in the area and having the auto dealerships (he owns) just down the road from the place.
"All (of those things) add up to making it like a homecoming every time we go to Bristol. It has always been a special place for us and always will be," Wallace said before the race. "We're just hoping to taste some more success there again this weekend."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.