- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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For most drivers (Full disclosure: I'm also a part-time cop), seeing a police car lurking right behind in the rearview mirror usually causes one to snap to attention and act on their best behavior while behind the wheel.
Or at least until the cop passes you by -- that is, if he doesn't activate his lights and siren and pull you over first.
And if indeed John Law steps out of his patrol cruiser and ambles up to your driver's side window, chances are you shrink downward a bit in your seat, prepare for the worst and respond to the officer's questions with often-feeble "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" replies.
But for a few dozen Californians in recent years, the above scenario has had a slightly different twist. Whenever a California Highway patrolman would step up to their car, there would be a smiling Rusty Wallace right on the police officer's heels.
After getting over the shock of being stopped by a cop, the pulled-over drivers would be even more shocked when they'd still get a ticket -- but in this case, it would be Wallace handing out free tickets to that coming weekend's race at nearby Sears Point Raceway (now known as Infineon Raceway).
Without question, it's one of the greatest promotions NASCAR has ever seen, not to mention probably one of the greatest public relations programs for the CHP since Erik Estrada starred in "CHiPs" nearly 20 years ago.
It's also that same kind of attitude that personifies racing at Infineon, home of Sunday's Dodge/Save Mart 350. The atmosphere is friendly and laid-back and the road course racing surface levels out the playing field for most drivers (with the exception of guys who have previous road course experience).
And if everything goes well for him, Wallace and the No. 2 Dodge should be right at or near the front of the pack when the checkered flag waves late Sunday afternoon. Recent history at Sears Point/Infineon affirms Wallace, who will be making his 650th career Cup start this weekend, could very well be one of those to beat: he's started from the top-10 in the last five races there, including winning from the pole in 2000. He's also led laps in eight of the 15-race Cup history at the twisting 10-turn, 1.99-mile road course, the most among active drivers.
Wallace enters Sunday's race having qualified an outstanding second behind pole-sitter Jeff Gordon on Friday. He's also 15th in the current Nextel Cup standings … and is ready for a big jump upward.
"We have a tremendously fast and sleek new little hot rod ready and we had a super killer test with it out there a couple weeks back," Wallace said of his June 8 test session on the newly repaved California facility. "The track is extremely smooth and a lot faster. You're really able to get off the turns so much quicker. Based on how we practiced that day, we're confident that the chamber is loaded and ready to shoot us down another road course win this weekend.
"We were there testing along with Robby Gordon, Terry Labonte and several others and were impressed with what we were able to do with the new car. The 31 car (Robby Gordon) put a major spanking on all of us (led 81 of the 110 laps) out there last year and that's a good team to compare yourself with. I guess you could say we were impressed enough with what we had this time around that we'd dare to compare ourselves with the best this time around.
"This is the first new road course car we've had in several seasons now and the guys have done a fantastic job in giving us a new weapon to work with. I'm itching to get back out and put that baby through its paces."
In his recent test at Infineon, Wallace bested the previous track qualifying record (1:16.522), set last year by road racing specialist Boris Said, by more than a second, clocking in at 1:15.250. In qualifying Friday, Gordon grabbed the pole with a 1:15.968 wild ride, while Wallace was just a few ticks behind at 1:16.072, still nearly a half-second better than Said's former mark.
"The track will have had more time to cure now, but it certainly has quite a bit more grip than last year and we'll be zooming through all those turns," Wallace said of Sunday's race.
Wallace hopes to rebound from last Sunday's valve spring failure at Michigan. He was running in the top-five when the motor went south.
"It was a situation of bad luck ruining a good run again," said Larry Carter, Wallace's crew chief, of his driver's eventual and disappointing 22nd-place finish. "But it certainly could have been worse. We dropped a cylinder there with 63 laps still remaining -- that's 125 miles of straining it all the way. That's a lot of racing left to have to nurse a car to the finish, but we were able to do it. A bunch of teams were not that fortunate. Rusty got all he could out of it and was still hitting on seven (cylinders) when he came across the finish line."
On the flip side, however, Wallace's teammate, Ryan Newman, blasted to the front to take the lead with 23 laps remaining at Michigan, holding on for his first triumph of the season.
As for his most recent outing at Infineon, Wallace started seventh and finished eighth in last year's race.
"We had a pretty good run going last year and got off the track," said Wallace, whose six career road course wins rank him second only to Gordon among active drivers. "We were able to regroup and pull us another top-10 out of the day. We plan on being a ton stronger this time around and be a legitimate threat to win the thing."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@Yahoo.com.