- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Rusty Wallace has two chances remaining to end the career shutout Talladega Superspeedway has pitched him, and he plans to make the most of them.
The first comes this weekend in Sunday's Aaron's 499, a race in which Wallace will look to rebound after a disappointing trip to Phoenix. Wallace's Dodge was damaged while trying to avoid Tony Stewart's spinning Chevrolet.
That led to a 36th-place finish, one that dropped him from third to 10th in points. Needless to say, Wallace wasn't amused. Especially not with the circumstances that led to the wreck.
Stewart and Jimmie Johnson tangled in the Daytona 500 and Wallace isn't quite sure what's going on between the two of them. And he might not even care if the result of their latest tussle hadn't left him with a battered car.
"Saturday night at Phoenix was just brutal for us, and we need to get back on track at Talladega," Wallace said. "I was just an innocent victim and had nowhere to go. I still can't figure out what all that was about. The 48 [Johnson] got into [Stewart's] car and spun him going into turn three, and when he spun him, all heck broke loose. They were getting wild going down into three. They were getting mad at each other. The 48 punted the 20. The 20 went around, and that was it."
That led to a punctured radiator and at least a momentary blow to Wallace's goal of remaining toward the top of the point standings.
"We're definitely still solid players in the picture as far as the points go," Wallace said. "But we need to go on to Talladega and get us a good finish there, that's for sure."
And that hasn't always been easy for this driver with 55 career Cup wins. The Missouri native has made 43 starts at the track, but has yet to win. In fact, he has just one top-five finish at Talladega, and that was in July 1988. He has 12 top-10s, but this is obviously not a track that has done much to build his legacy.
Wallace has been part of some spectacular wrecks, but he hopes to change the way fans view him at Talladega come Sunday. He'll be in the car he was planning to race in the Daytona 500 until it was battered in qualifying leading up to that race.
Now, though, the car is ready to go.
"She's like a brand-new car. We have a brand-new body on her, and she's been tweaked through the [wind] tunnel several times this year," crew chief Larry Carter said. "This car has had the best [wind tunnel] numbers ever for one of our speedway cars, so we have some pretty high hopes going for this weekend at Talladega."
Numbers in the wind tunnel, though, only mean so much at Daytona and Talladega, as the tendency to bump draft often leaves cars looking as though they just completed 500 laps at Bristol or Martinsville.
Though a car with poor aerodynamics might qualify poorly, a tenacious driver can remain in the thick of things via the draft. That's why Wallace says past history is no indication of future performance.
"You never know what can happen in the Talladega races, and we're coming in there with the attitude that we can win," Wallace said. "If you can stay in the draft and keep the car in one piece all day, you can come out of there on top."
Although the hit in points suffered in Phoenix was upsetting, Wallace is trying to focus on the positives of still being in the top 10.
"This points deal is just so tight right now," Wallace said. "We took a big hit at Phoenix, but so did [Greg Biffle, who lost a radiator in a pit-road incident and overheated his Ford's motor]. … We're only 92 [points] out of third and [49 points] out of fifth, so the pendulum can really swing again this weekend at Talladega. It could just be the most pivotal race yet this season."
In all of his springs spent racing at Talladega, Wallace's best finishes are two sixth-place efforts. One of them might be the most memorable sixth place of a stellar career.
That came in 1993, when he was battling with Dale Earnhardt down the stretch.
"Me and Earnhardt had been running first and second for almost the entire race, and it looked like it was going to finish that way," Wallace recalled. "But as my luck seems to have gone at Talladega, there was a caution right at the end. That bunched us all back again for a two-lap race to the finish."
"And that's when things got a bit hairy, to put it mildly.
"We were headed down for the checkered flag with a whole cluster of cars. Earnhardt barely got into me from the rear, but that's all it took," Wallace said. "I got sideways, and the air got underneath the car. That thing shot up in the air and flipped end-over-end 16 times before it finally came to rest on down past the tri-oval. I think Dale thought he'd killed me that day, and he was happy when he stopped and looked inside the wreckage to see that I'd be OK.
"I broke my wrist and was beaten all black and blue in that one. The weird thing was that we actually came across the finish line in the air. If it had been a photo finish, we might have been clear out of view for the camera."
Entering Phoenix, Wallace was rather satisfied with how his season had been unfolding. He pointed out that after last year's win at Martinsville he was eighth in points before enduring a bad luck streak that saw him suffer from engine and transmission failures.
At the time, he took a moment to look ahead, not realizing just how aptly he'd wind up summarizing things for his race team heading to Talladega.
"I think these next four or five races are pretty critical to get a little breathing room to get away from these guys," Wallace said then. "If you have a bad race you might not be out of it."
Wallace, a victim of circumstances at Phoenix, has had his bad race. Now he has to see whether he can bounce back at a track that has been anything but friendly through the years.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor for NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.