Wallace upbeat about Daytona, final season

Updated: February 4, 2005, 7:16 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | Special to ESPN.com

Rusty Wallace
When Rusty Wallace announced last summer that 2005 would be his swan song, the 20-year NASCAR veteran and former champion knew he'd have some doubts.

He didn't expect, however, to have those doubts before the season even began.

But that's exactly what's happening as Wallace, 48, eyes his final season, which kicks off Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500.

"Everybody told me I'd do that," Wallace said. "I told myself, 'Self, get halfway through the year and see where you're at and see if you're still comfortable with your decision.'"

Maybe by the time the Nextel Cup Series returns to Daytona in July, Wallace will have a better handle on how he feels about retiring. With his elaborate "Last Call Tour" in full gear by then, there will be no turning back.

At least on his decision to stop competing in NASCAR events. Wallace is already hinting he'll still get behind the wheel of a race car at least once in 2006. And he'd probably have decided to compete in Cup again next year if he knew last August what he knows now.

"I've been lying in bed wondering if I made the right decision or if I pulled the trigger too quick. Looking back right now, maybe I would have gone another year before I did it," said Wallace, never one to share the spotlight if he doesn't have to. "I did it because I'm on top of my game. I want to go out on top of my game. I had no idea that Mark Martin and Terry Labonte were going to do what they did, also."

In the weeks after Wallace told everyone he'd be bellying up to the racing bar a final time in 2005, Martin announced that this would be his final Cup season, though there's a good chance he'll compete in the Craftsman Truck Series in '06. Labonte, meanwhile, will run 10 races each of the next two seasons before retiring.

Wallace, though, doesn't mind admitting he wanted the spotlight for himself.

"I did it because I wanted to be the only guy doing it and I wanted to do a really good tour, and that's what I'm going to do," Wallace said. "I'm sticking with my decision right now. I did tell people I'm not going to race anything. I'm not going to do anything after the 2005 season.

"[Now] I kinda opened the door back up where if I wanted to run a couple of races I could. I don't plan on it, but I do plan on running the 2006 24 Hours of Daytona. I've never done that before, and I want to do that before I'm all said and done and be able to say I've done that one. I know I'm doing that one."

Beyond that, Wallace has no plans. Now, though, he admits he'd consider testing for Penske Racing South, or jumping behind the wheel to show son Stephen the proper way to get around a given track during a test session.

"I'm an impatient guy, and I can see me jerking him out of the car and me jumping in to tell him what it's doing and try to speed up his learning procedures a little bit," Wallace said. "My plan is not to do any of that. [But] I'm trying to leave the door open in case I want to do some of that."

Despite Wallace's self-doubts about the timing of his decision, Roger Penske thinks his driver is doing the right thing. Wallace has stressed that he wants to go out while he's still on top of his game and, last spring at Martinsville, he did break a winless streak that had dated back to 2001.

I think we're all going to see him have one of his very best seasons. I see it in his eyes.
Roger Penske on Rusty Wallace, who's retiring at season's end

Penske thinks Wallace's other business interests (including car dealerships) will occupy his time once he quits driving. And he'll also be busy running his Busch Series team, which he's building up for son Stephen once he's ready to make that move.

Wallace has slipped through the point standings the last few years, but Penske thinks his driver will be battling for the championship as he enters his final races.

"I think we're all going to see him have one of his very best seasons. I see it in his eyes," Penske said. "I would be disappointed if he's not (in The Chase). Being in that Chase is a tough situation with the competition like it is. There are 10 or 15 other ones who should be in there also, and that makes it so exciting, but I think Rusty has been in the top 10 for many, many years.

"There's no reason he can't be in the top 10. We've got great equipment. I think he's got a great crew chief in Larry Carter, and he certainly knows how to drive the car."

There's no arguing that point, but that doesn't mean Wallace doesn't have some goals to shoot for this season. And the biggest one comes first as he's still yet to win the Daytona 500.

Wallace has come close in the past, but history doesn't celebrate those who've come close in NASCAR's marquee event. Wallace has come even closer to winning a Brickyard 400, but his focus right now is on Daytona.

"I'm possessed on winning that race. I know I've got one shot left," Wallace said. "My test at Daytona went real, real well. It started out slow and then it got better and better as the week went on. By the third day it got real good. I feel like I've got a great car going down there. I'm going down there with a lot of optimism. I was laying in bed last night running that last lap through my mind."

By the time the 500 arrives later this month, Wallace will have played out every potential scenario in his mind. He's confident that if he's actually in a position to win, he'll make the right decision and start his "Last Call" in victory lane.

If not, though, it won't mar his record in his eyes. Wallace has a Winston Cup championship to his credit (in 1989), so even if he doesn't win this year, his career will still rank among the best there's been.

"There would be a small void in there, but I've won a lot of poles and races. I did a lot of cool things," Wallace said. "One void is Daytona. I think that's one of the biggest tracks we go to that I'd like to get the job done at. The Brickyard hasn't been on the circuit that long to miss not getting one there, although I should have won that thing many times. I've had three second-place finishes [after getting] passed with 10 laps to go. In my eyes I kinda won it, but Daytona is the one I want."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.