Dejected Wallace focused on finishing strong

Originally Published: November 3, 2005
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- His championship hopes are over, leaving Rusty Wallace little to race for in the final three events of his storied career.

But Wallace has too much pride to simply ride around the next three weeks before he drives off into retirement.

"I'll be going as hard as I can to salvage what we can," Wallace said. "I think the remainder of the year, my goal now is to win a race and get back in the top five in the points at least."

Wallace had hoped to leave the sport with a second Cup championship, but his chances ended last weekend in Atlanta when he was involved in an accident seven laps into the race. It was his third straight wreck and dropped Wallace to eighth in the Chase for the championship standings, 257 points behind leader Tony Stewart.

"It's been real upsetting the last three weeks," Wallace said. "This deal at Atlanta was just unbelievable. Seven laps in the race, a fellow blows a right front tire, spins in front of me, there's nowhere to go. That's three in a row.

"That really, really hurt. We've got the car to be in the top one or two in points easy, but we just haven't had the luck."

This isn't the way Wallace wanted to go out after 22 full seasons. He started the 10-race playoffs maintaining that simply being eligible for the title was not enough for him -- Wallace wanted to win it.

It marked a resurgence of sorts for the 49-year-old Wallace, who had put his career back on the fast track after several disappointing seasons. The 1989 series champion had been a model of consistency throughout his career, winning at least one race in 16 consecutive seasons and finishing in the top 10 in points from 1993 through 2002.

He hit a drought midway through 2001 and went almost three years without a win. He also found himself outside the top 10 the past two seasons, an also-ran in a sport that was shifting toward younger, tech-savvy drivers.

So this was to be Wallace's final year, regardless of where he ended up.

But as Wallace put together strong runs throughout this season, going out as a champion became a real possibility. Now that it's over, he's trying to take solace in making one final run and earning the right to attend the season-ending awards ceremony in New York -- something he had missed the last two years.

"I'm going out going to New York, [so] I'm not beating myself up," Wallace said. "If I wasn't in the top 10, I wouldn't have felt good about it. I'm in the top 10, everybody knows I've run well.

"If it wasn't for these last couple weeks, I wouldn't be so damn dejected like I am now. I just can't believe this is happening. I'm devastated about what the hell has happened because I really thought I was a legitimate candidate to win this championship."

But Wallace isn't so upset that he'd consider returning for yet another season behind the wheel. Unlike Mark Martin, who also planned to retire at the end of the year but was talked out of it by car owner Jack Roush, Wallace won't be persuaded.

His situation is similar to Martin's in that Kurt Busch has signed on to drive the No. 2 Dodge in 2007, and if he can't get a release for next year, car owner Roger Penske has no one lined up to immediately replace Wallace. Martin found himself in that position when Jamie McMurray signed on for his ride, and Roush fretted he'd have an empty seat if Martin left in 2006.

But replacement driver or not, Wallace is moving on in three more weeks.

"I love racing, no doubt about it," he said. "I got behind in the points now because of these crazy wrecks that happened three weeks in a row, which I never would have believed it happened. It makes me want to keep on racing and try to get myself back up in there. But that's unfortunately over, and I've got three more to go.

"That's going to be it. But I'm comfortable with my decision, I really am. I made the right decision and I'm driving my brains out."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press