Wallace grabs the spotlight with win

Updated: April 21, 2004, 7:33 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

Rusty Wallace
Wallace
Only two drivers among the top 10 in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series standings have been racing at this level since before 1999. So one would think it were time for another round of Young Gun Fever.

But nowadays, it's become so commonplace, so routine to watch the rookies and 20-somethings perform at a high level that it hardly bears mentioning.

In a reversal, what does warrant praise is when a guy like Rusty Wallace -- after enduring a constant barrage of questioning about the younger generation while scratching his head about his own shortcomings -- keeps his nose to the grindstone and pounds out a victory for the first time in three years.

"It's nice to see a guy like Rusty get back to victory lane," fellow veteran Dale Jarrett said after Wallace's win in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway. "There's always a lot of talk about the young guns, and there's good reason for that. ... You can't forget about (us), though."

Wallace, 47, has seen the Young Gun-ification of NASCAR up close. His teammate, Ryan Newman, has been at the forefront, winning eight times last season. Meanwhile, Wallace was earning a rep around the garage as a grizzled vet who was hard to work for, constantly looking to replace weak links.

All of this took place as a revolving administration at Miller Lite wondered: (1) How popular could a guy like Rusty Wallace be when all they're hearing about is Dale Earnhardt Jr.? and (2) Why wasn't Miller Lite ever served in victory lane?

"I questioned myself a little bit," Wallace said, as one, two and then 105 races went by without a win. "I said, 'Man, this schedule is wearing me out.' I felt like I was driving as hard as I could, and I thought if we could get this right or that right we'd get back in victory lane.

Rusty Wallace
Wallace is the oldest driver to win a Cup race this season.

"But, you know, I'm not a quitter. I've never quit. If anything I just keep moving things around to compliment what I've got to have."

Needless to say, there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the Wallace, as there has been on many of the aging vets who are past the age when they can capture the hearts of teenage girls and imaginations of teenage boys. What these guys have going for them is a loyal fan base built from past success and whatever new fans they can conjure with success in the present.

That's why Rusty's win on Sunday was so important.

"We needed this one," he said. "NASCAR's changing fast and if you don't remind them who you are every once in a while the new (fans) might not know you."

Wallace won't be a name racing people don't know, though. With his victory on Sunday, he passed Lee Petty for sixth on the all-time wins list. And his fans were there, just as they'd been through his recent struggles, to cheer him on.

"It's been so long, and we've been so close," Wallace said. "The fans have been behind me for so long, and this one is for them. We finally got this Miller Lite Dodge in victory lane like it deserves to be."

Wallace also finally answered the questions pressed upon him as of late: How popular could he be? Ask the thousands of screaming fans at Martinsville last weekend. And why isn't Miller Lite served in victory lane?

It is. It's this week's special.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.

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