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Wallace still hopeful of making top 10

7/21/2004

Rusty Wallace is an old-school race car driver. But the title-starved veteran is one of a handful of drivers who could benefit from the new-school Nextel-styled NASCAR.

Once again, Wallace finds himself far outside of championship contention with just half the season complete. He's in 17th place in the standings, 755 points out of first.

But while that once presented a daunting task for a championship hopeful, this year reaching first place isn't the only priority. Wallace is only 208 points behind his teammate Ryan Newman, who sits in 10th place. And this year, not only do the top-10 race for the title, but those 10 are separated by a total of 50 points. That means lucky No. 10 is only 50 points out of first after Race No. 26.

That makes things interesting, and gives Wallace plenty of incentive.

"I'm confident that we can still make the cut," Wallace said. "We're heading to some of our best tracks between now and then, and we think that will play heavily in our favor. Even if we could personally choose all the tracks we wanted to race on between now and then, I don't think it could be a better list."

Wallace has indeed enjoyed much success over the season's final 18 events. In the last five years, he's averaged seven top 10s and four top fives. They may not be jaw-dropping numbers, but they have been good enough for top-10 finishes in four of those five seasons. In fact, Wallace has finished among the top 10 in 16 of the past 18 years.

"We've been there plenty of times," Wallace said of the top 10. "It's not out of reach, not by a long shot."

But reaching the top 10 by Race 36 isn't the goal. Wallace needs to be there by the end of Race 26 -- a night-time exhibition at Richmond International Raceway, one of his favorite Cup stops.

"I guess you could say that Richmond is 'D-Day' for all of us -- you either get it done or you don't -- you're either in it or you're not -- and I think we can make up that difference between now and then," Wallace said. "We've won a ton of races at the tracks we have coming up and look to add to our success on those tracks between now and then."

Some of the places where Wallace hopes to capitalize are Pocono, Bristol and Indy. He's won at Pocono and Bristol, and finished 10th, second, fourth and second respectively in his past four attempts at the Brickyard.

He's hoping that history of success is good enough for him to overtake guys like Jeremy Mayfield, Dale Jarrett, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin and Casey Mears -- the six drivers who sit 11th through 16th. But he's not stressed out about it.

For one thing, he knows that if they all do well between now and Richmond, more than 10 could be racing for the title because there is a stipulation that everyone within 400 points of the leader gets to race for a championship. And while he knows that's not a likely scenario, he also understands that concentrating on top fives and wins is the best way to make up ground late in the season.

"We're looking at getting back up there in the top 10 as the big goal right now, but we're certainly not freaking out about it and calling 911," he said. "The 48 (car of Jimmie Johnson) and the 8 (car Dale Earnhardt Jr.) have been pretty bullet-proof, and I don't know about that 400-point end of the new deal, so we're just focused on wins and getting back up there in the top 10."

A goal that Wallace is optimistic about attaining.

"We just have to keep up the pace and not let any more of the stupid stuff happen," he said. "The performance is there, and I've got to run hard, aggressive and careful and finish every week now. If I can run the race and finish with no problem, we're going to be in the top five and get more wins. We can't waste time and can't afford to make mistakes. But I know we can get the job done."

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