High expectations fall short for Wallace and Phoenix Racing
Eighteen Busch Series starts and zero top-10s? Yes, it's been that kind of season for Mike Wallace and Phoenix Racing, writes Mark Ashenfelter.
Quite simply, it's been a season to forget thus far for Mike Wallace. A trip to Daytona International Speedway might be just what the driver and his Phoenix Racing team need, but Wallace knows one race won't fix everything.
Still, it can be a start. Wallace entered the season with the highest of hopes. After all, he put together a deal with sponsor Geico and aligned himself with Phoenix Racing, which elected to field a pair of full-time Busch Series teams this season.
In theory, a team with Wallace and J.J. Yeley should have been successful, especially considering Phoenix Racing always has done what it could to hold its own against the Nextel Cup-owned teams that currently dominate the series.
Reality, though, hasn't been as kind, as Wallace has gone all 18 races without a top-10. His best finish, 11th at Milwaukee, is one of just six top-20 finishes. Two crashes and two blown engines haven't helped matters and Wallace enters Friday's Winn-Dixie 250 14th in points, ahead of just two drivers who have started every race.
If there's any bright side in heading to Daytona, where Wallace's ability to work the draft can help compensate for a car that might not be as polished aerodynamically as those built by the Cup teams, it's that Gere Kennon has joined the team as crew chief, allowing interim crew chief Marc Reno to focus on his duties as the team's GM.
Based on the season thus far, Wallace isn't about to get too optimistic.
"It's too early to determine exactly if it's going to help or not. We went to Loudon and didn't do anything too great; we had some mechanical failures," Wallace said. "But I'm looking forward to going to Daytona and we'll see if our program can run well down there.
"It's just more of a positive direction in regards to [having] a permanent replacement. We'll have a [Richard Childress Racing] motor. We'll see on Thursday [during practice] -- and hopefully things will improve."
The problems haven't just plagued Wallace, as the Yeley entry doesn't have a top-10 in 16 starts. The best finish for that car was a ninth-place run by Johnny Benson at Milwaukee, when he was filling in for Yeley, who focused on that weekend's Cup race at Sonoma.
"I think we're off everywhere -- there's no one singular place," Wallace said. "I think we're struggling all the way through from car preparation at the shop to the people working on it to the interim crew chief situation and the motor situation.
"It would be different if it was just my car, but both our cars [are struggling]. I'm not sure if we were totally equipped for a two-car effort this year as much as the organization thought they would be."
The frustration is getting to Wallace, largely because the expectations were so high this year.
"Everything was supposed to be wonderful this year," Wallace said. "We've got a great sponsor that signed a multiyear deal; finances shouldn't be an issue in our organization, but it's not happening [on the track]."
But if there's a track where things could turn around, it's Daytona. Wallace won this race in 2004 and briefly has led both restrictor-plate races this season.
"We just need to win or get a top-five finish," Wallace said. "I can run up front and be competitive on any track we race on as long as the cars will do that.
" For some reason, I've shined at Daytona and Talladega with cars that have never been that fast. I'd give anything in the world to go there with a fast car. To have a car that qualifies in the top 10 and be able to race it would be phenomenal for me."
While Wallace is a veteran at these races, the likes of Marcos Ambrose will still be learning how things work at Daytona. Needless to say, he'd love to have Wallace's experience come Friday night.
"It's so different to what racing is normally about that it takes a little bit of adjusting. You put your foot to the floor for (250) miles is all you're doing and it's just how aggressive you are in the pack and how the draft works," Ambrose said. "You're actually at the mercy of some of the other people as much as yourself, so you've got to trust who you're around.
"That's a very different outlook on racing than normal. Normally, you've got control in your own hands, but at Daytona you don't."
Wallace might just think that's a good thing this weekend.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
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