Wallace wants to set record straight at Indy
Wallace is among the drivers who've competed in all 11 NASCAR events at hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He's also among the list of those yet to win there.
So while Jeff Gordon looks to break a miserable stretch of races with a record-shattering fifth win at the track, Wallace will desperately be seeking what would be his first, and only, win at the track. Although he has yet to win this season, Wallace will be one of the favorites Sunday.
In 11 starts at Indy, he has finished in the top 10 on nine occasions. Three of those times, he came home second, and his near-misses have been in excruciating fashion.
Wallace knows his career will end without a victory in the Daytona 500, which just furthers his desire to win at Indy.
"That's the big crown jewel still out there that I don't have -- a Brickyard 400 trophy -- and rest assured that we're pulling out all the stops in our last shot to get us one," Wallace says. "Since we've been racing at Indy, I've always looked at that race as one of the big three -- one of the crown jewels of our sport.
"The other races in that group are the 600 at Charlotte [Lowe's Motor Speedway], which I was fortunate enough to win [in 1990] and the Daytona 500, where we had many tremendous runs and should have won the darn thing several times. I've come to accept the fact that my career as a driver will end without that win, but I still have a great chance of winning the Brickyard 400."
But Wallace, fourth in points entering the race, has a bigger goal in mind, as well. Winner of the 1989 Winston Cup championship, he'd love nothing more than to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. At the moment, he's in good shape to do just that, leaving him 10 races with which to win another championship.
So as much as he wants a win Sunday, he's keeping things in perspective.
"When it comes to the big picture, the points, the championship and all, we have to look at this race the same as we have been," Wallace says. "I've been saying all along that if there's any secrets to our success this year, it has been looking at each race as the most important event of the year -- focusing 100 percent of our attention on that next race and not getting sidetracked by looking ahead.
"That's the same deal here, too, because it is a race that pays the same amount of points and carries the same weight from a big-picture standpoint. But after all, this is the Brickyard, so it's easy to understand that we've tried to strengthen our effort in every way possible."
That included a last-minute change of plans regarding the Penske Racing South Dodge he'll drive this weekend. Testing at Indy, Wallace used a brand-new Charger but realized it would need some changes. The team also tried a backup car and thought it would make the trip, as well.
Then Wallace went to Pocono Raceway, where he qualified 13th and finished second. With the luxury of an off week between races, it was easy for the crew to turn around that car for the Brickyard.
"Once we got up to Pocono and rolled out the car and saw how strong she ran there, we all decided that it was the car we really need at Indy to get the job done," Wallace says. "Pocono is a big and flat track, and so is Indy. I'm convinced that this is the car we can finally put into Victory Lane at Indy. We'll have that car and the strongest motor we can build out there. We're definitely pulling no stops this time around."
Crew chief Larry Carter says the decision was about as easy as they come. "All of our cars are really good pieces right now," Carter says. "Even that brand-new car that we decided against running, we're running it back through the shop and making some changes. It'll be out there and running up front on down the road, I'll guarantee you that.
"But Rusty really liked the feel of that car at Pocono. After that race, I think there were about four of us -- Rusty, Derek [Stamets, team engineer], Jeffrey [Thousand, car chief] and me -- who were all on the exact same page suggesting that we should take that car on to Indy. Put it this way, if there's ever been a slam dunk in our sport, the decision to take [that specific] car to Indy certainly has to be it."
A win this time would erase at least some of the frustration over those that have gotten away.
In 1995, Wallace lost by less than a second to Dale Earnhardt. What hurt that day was that during the last green-flag pit stop, two cars got together as Wallace was trying to exit the pits.
"That slowed us down enough that Dale got the lead away from us," Wallace says. "It came down to a battle between Earnhardt and us. We made a charge and reeled Dale in, closing the gap, but we just ran out of laps. It was a shame because we had them covered. We had the thing won before those two cars got together and blocked pit road in front of us."
Five years later, Bobby Labonte tracked down Wallace, giving the driver his second runner-up finish. Labonte passed him on lap 147 of 160 and breezed to a 4.229-second win.
"That last set of tires just made me too tight," Wallace recalls. "Bobby caught me, got around me, and I just couldn't do anything with him at that point. We had a great car all day long. Man, it was really flying. I just couldn't do anything with [Labonte at the end of the race]. He was right on my bumper all day long, and I knew if he ever got around me he might get away from me, but I was tight for about the last third of the race -- just too tight.
"He got underneath me. I drove it in too deep going into turn 4 there to try to hold him off. My power started taking over at the end of the straightaway, but there's no way to go side-by-side into turn 1. We could do it everywhere else, but not turn 1. I knew I had to get the thing freed up in order to beat him, but it just didn't happen. I wanted to win the thing so bad for Roger [Penske], not really for myself but for Penske. It was another one of those woulda-shoulda-couldas."
The final of those, at least for now, came in 2002 -- when Wallace, despite starting 35th, was in the lead until Bill Elliott took over with 10 laps remaining.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I was so happy for Bill Elliott winning the thing," Wallace says. "He and I go way back, and he's definitely paid his dues. I even went to Victory Lane to personally congratulate him on his big win. But at the end of the day, it was yet another one that got away."
If it happens again Sunday, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have gotten away from Wallace for good.
"We've come so close to winning the Brickyard before that I could taste it," Wallace says. "I don't have to tell you how bad I want to win this one."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.