Wallace the prototype for new NASCAR
Yes, there is a motorsports hall of fame. In fact there's a bunch of them. And yes, in case you were wondering, Rusty Wallace is a shoo-in for all of them.
In the days since Rusty officially announced that 2005 would be his final season, I've contemplated his legacy. After all, where's Rusty Wallace's place in history? Statistically speaking, he's the eighth greatest driver all time. But evaluating him solely on his 55 career wins seems like a shallow way of rating this future hall of famer.
As I thought about what has been, I couldn't help but think about what could have been.
To a certain extent Wallace and the late Dale Earnhardt thrived off of one another.
Being honest, though, one can only wonder what milestones Wallace may have reached if it weren't for that rivalry. At times it seemed like No. 2 (sometimes No. 16 or No. 27) was always second to No. 3.
From the very beginning Earnhardt was Wallace's nemesis. In his rookie debut at Atlanta in 1980, Wallace made a huge first impression by finishing second. Guess who won? That's right, Earnhardt.
Arguably, Earnhardt may have taken as many as seven wins away from Wallace. That's how many times Rusty ran runner-up to Earnhardt. While it may not seem like much, consider this: If those finishes were reversed Wallace would be only five wins behind Earnhardt on the all time list and may have some additional incentive to stick around a few more years.
Wallace won a championship in 1989. But if it weren't for Earnhardt, he probably would have won at least two. Wallace won 10 races in 1993 but finished second in the overall standings, just 80 points behind the Intimidator. Wallace remains one of only seven drivers during the modern era (1972 to present) to record double-digit victories in a season and not win the title.
Rusty did win plenty of races. His 55th career win came at Martinsville earlier this year, moving him ahead of Lee Petty on the all-time win list.
Perhaps more important than the quantity of wins was the quality. Twenty-four of Wallace's victories came on tracks less than a mile in length. Another six wins came at road courses. These are all regarded as "driver's" tracks, places where the human skill can sometimes outweigh the value of mechanical superiority.
Mechanical superiority, however, is king at restrictor plate tracks. That should be some solace to Wallace considering he's never won at either Daytona or Talladega. With all due respect to Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, and Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace could be regarded as the best driver never to have won the Daytona 500. Don't think, even for a second, that doesn't bother him.
It took Earnhardt, who had 11 career restrictor plate wins (counting point races only), 20 years to win his first Daytona 500. Next season will be Wallace's 23rd and final attempt.
In as many ways as Earnhardt trumped Wallace on the track though, there seems to be some vindication. It appears the future of the sport is being modeled in Wallace's image. As teams scour the racing landscape scouting talent, they're looking for a driver more like Rusty than Dale.
Teams want a young gun who can drive not only a racecar but also sales. Ironically, raw talent -- Earnhardt's greatest asset -- is no longer enough. Polish and savvy, among Wallace's strongest attributes, are prerequisites for the job.
During the 80's and 90's Wallace's marketability was virtually unrivaled, save for the exceptions of Earnhardt and Richard Petty. His smile, quick wit and knack for getting to victory lane appealed to demographics young and old, male and female, rich and poor.
When Rusty hangs up the helmet next season, he will have simultaneously been a spokesperson for Miller Lite and Callaway Golf. I'd love to see the cross over demographic for those two companies. It's hard to imagine hard core, blue collar Miller Lite drinkers spending $400 for a single golf club, and high brow, white collar Callaway owners drinking anything domestic. Of course if anyone can bridge the gap between those two groups it's probably Rusty.
Rusty Wallace is not only going out like a champion. He might actually go out as the champion.
Sure Wallace is 873 points out of first place heading to California, but you'd be crazy to think he can't win this week. And you'd be even nuttier if you don't think he wants to do so. Anyone who doubts Wallace's competitive drive should have heard him on the radio last week when the team miscalculated fuel mileage. And, think back to the last California race. What was it he wanted to do to Tony Stewart again?
So, next year will be "Rusty's Last Call." Really. He's adamant that there will be no recreational, part-time racing in 2006.
Next season will be a season of celebration. There'll be trinkets and souvenirs for anyone who wants to ante up the cash to commemorate a champion's last tour.
Certainly Wallace will receive his share of parting gifts, too, but there are three things he wants most: a Daytona 500 trophy, Brickyard 400 trophy and the Nextel Cup.
Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.
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