Rusty Wallace still has a sore spot about not winning in 2002, and that could be bad news
He's won a Winston Cup championship and more than 50 races. Now, Rusty Wallace must look closely at the issue of retirement. That may happen after two or three more seasons, Wallace says. In the meantime, he's driven to win and doesn't plan to be pushed around in his pursuit of victory.
SCR: Are you looking forward to racing a Dodge in 2003?
Wallace: Very much so. I'm feeling very confident heading into 2003. It was a tough decision to leave Ford, just like it was when I moved from Pontiac. Leaving them is like moving from a hometown where you've lived all your life. I won a lot of races with both Pontiac and Ford, and I've tried my best to honor all my contracts and keep everybody happy. It's hard, but this is just a huge business decision because (team owner) Roger Penske is one of the biggest Daimler-Chrysler distributors in the world. It just wasn't making a lot of sense to keep doing what we were doing.
SCR: Do you see any similarities in the switch to Dodge like you did when you moved from Pontiac to Ford?
Wallace: Not at all. After we won all those races and the championship with Pontiac, they were going to cut our budget way back. So that just didn't make any financial sense to us as a team because we thought the Ford was probably a better car. Now that has nothing to do with our decision to move from Ford to Dodge. We felt like we fulfilled our commitment with Ford and were ready for a change.
SCR: Since Winston Cup fans are so brand loyal, do you fear backlash coming from Ford fans because of the move to Dodge?
Wallace: I hope not. I saw a poll where fans were upset with Penske Racing for making the switch. On the other hand, those very same fans said they'd support Rusty Wallace no matter what I drove. So it's kind of a strange deal. It's kind of interesting to me because I have a financial stake in Penske Racing. Roger Penske owns 52 percent while Don Miller and myself both own 24 percent in both the No. 2 and 12 teams.
SCR: You'll obviously go down as one of the greatest drivers in Winston Cup history with a championship and more than 50 victories. How hard was it going into this season knowing you hadn't won since April 2001?
Wallace: It's been hard to take and something I'm still in disbelief over. I never would have believed I wouldn't be sitting in Victory Lane at least five or six times since I won at California. I can tell you that 2002 would have been a great year for me except for the bump going into Turn 3 from Jeff Gordon at Bristol. I would have had my victory to keep the streak alive. I just can't seem to get that race out of my mind, and I have a problem with it. It's painful to stomach because I'm a winner and so is my team, but we didn't win. The only thing that allows me to tolerate it is I can sit back and look at whom I consider was the best driver in the world, Dale Earnhardt. In 1992 he didn't win a race and neither one of us made the Top 10 to get on stage at the awards banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. We both had to sit in the very back of the room, and we looked at each other at the same time and said, "This sucks." The very next year he comes back and wins the championship and I finish second. When you're really upset about the way a year turns out, it's amazing how you can dig down deep and find more.
SCR: Is it easy as a team to get down when you don't win on a regular basis or is it just added motivation to get back to Victory Lane?
Wallace: I'm the guy who has to get over this. It's up to me to keep my team's spirits lifted up. I've got to be happy and keep pumping them up. If I get down and stay down, my team is going to get down and stay down. I just want to come out in 2003 and kick some ass. I want to come out of the gate at Daytona like a freaking house on fire.
SCR: Was not winning last year one of the most difficult things you ever went through, or did the fact that you were in championship contention allow you to not really worry about the streak until the very end of the season?
Wallace: Not getting the victory probably bothered me more than anything. The championship is an incredible feat, and not winning the title is easier to take because it is so hard for everybody. But with us not winning, I was like, "What in the hell is going on here?" That was the thing that upset me the most when I broke the streak of consecutive years with at least one victory. One of these days when I retire I would have liked to been able to say that I had the longest winning streak in NASCAR Winston Cup history. Now I can't say that.
Jeff Gordon bumped his way past Wallace at the August 2002 race at Bristol, leaving Wallac
SCR: You mentioned the near-victory at Bristol, when Jeff Gordon bumped you out of the way to win. If you had to play that race over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Wallace: Not really. I just got stuck behind a lapped car and got slowed down enough to where Jeff could catch up and hit me. Stuff like that just happens in racing. I will tell you it toughened me up a lot and made me realize the sport has changed. It really is war out there. Now I've got the frame of mind where if somebody beats on my car, they're going to get beat back twice. There is no more of this if you bump me crap then I'm going to tap you back. If I get bumped I'm giving three or four bumps back. That's the way it's going to be. I'm not going to say anything bad about Jeff Gordon because I do like him. I was telling somebody the other day that he reminds me of an old dog. You get mad at the dog because it's used the bathroom inside, so you start keeping him outside the house. Then as time goes by you kind of forget about it and start to feel pretty comfortable that he has learned his lesson. But then you turn your back on him and he takes a dump on the floor. That's the way I feel about Jeff right now. Jeff and I have had our problems, but then we started getting along real, real good and racing each other clean. Then he rams me in the ass at Bristol to cost me the victory. In my eyes, he's used the bathroom on the floor so we're going to have to retrain him all over again.
SCR: As far as your driving style, how has that changed the last 5 or 10 years?
Wallace: I think my driving style has changed with NASCAR. I don't personally think I've changed a whole lot. I am more of a thinking driver, but I can still be aggressive when I need to be, though NASCAR doesn't tolerate that whatsoever. People used to ask why Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace had calmed down so much. I remember taking Dale Jr. to an appearance with me when he was a young kid getting started, and he asked me why his dad and me didn't hit guys like we used to. I told him, "You can't do that anymore because of NASCAR and all the sponsors." Dale Jr. was so young he didn't realize the sport had changed that much. So I don't think I've had to change my driving style as much as I've had to change with the times. Now if you bump into somebody a couple of times, NASCAR is coming over the radio telling you not to keep doing that. It's to a point now where people have been penalized for cussing over the radio. You've got to be perfect now, and I'm not perfect by any means. I guess I'm just a slow learner.
SCR: Early in your career, you were perceived as a rather cocky driver who wasn't afraid to say what was on his mind. Over the last few years, you've seemed to be a little more laid back. Has Rusty mellowed out?
Wallace: No, I don't think so. I've learned the right and wrong things to say as well as the things that don't make a bit of sense even talking about. I know if you keep your mouth shut and don't say anything you get nothing accomplished sometimes. I am boisterous on what I think needs to get accomplished. As you see where this sport is going, you have to pay a lot of attention on what you say and what you don't.
Wallace knows the day will soon arrive when he climbs into a race car for the final time.
SCR: What's your take on the youth movement in Winston Cup racing the last few years?
Wallace: It was going to happen sooner or later. I feel like all the younger drivers who have come into Winston Cup the last few years have done a great job. They've made me wish I was 10 years younger. I've gotten sick of hearing about the young guns, but that's the way it is now.
SCR: For many years it seemed like the only way young drivers could get into Winston Cup was through years and years of racing experience. Now there are drivers no one had heard of five years ago coming along and winning races. Has the sport changed that much and, as a veteran do you see that trend continuing?
Wallace: The days of having to pay your dues to get to the Winston Cup level are over. It's like when I was coming up with a lot of the other veterans, we all had to drive cars that weren't the best. Right now the young guys are expected to perform because so much time and money is invested in them and their teams.
SCR: Has the sport become so technologically driven that even the youngest of drivers can get in a good Winston Cup car and have a chance to win?
Wallace: I really think it boils down to the individual driver because the guy has to have natural talent. I'm not going to sit here and tell you Winston Cup racing has gotten easier because it hasn't. It's still very, very hard.
Teammate Ryan Newman (left) has the potential to be one of the greatest stock car drivers
SCR: Do you feel like any of the changing technology may have passed you by?
Wallace: Absolutely. I think a little bit has passed me by, and I've said bah-humbug to a lot of things. I'm jumping off that bandwagon. I did a lot of those things the second half of last year and had a strong effort. I've become a little more open-minded to some of the new things that have come along that I never dreamed would work in Winston Cup. It is hard to adapt to something when you haven't been accustomed to it your entire life.
SCR: You worked with rookie Ryan Newman as a teammate last year and got to see some of the youth we've been talking about. How good can he become?
Wallace: Ryan has the potential to be one of the greatest drivers there is. He's just incredible. The sky is the limit for Ryan.
SCR: How much longer do you think you will be a Winston Cup driver? Are you taking it year by year?
Wallace: I can tell you I'll be probably be racing two more years and probably no longer than three. But I'm not promising anything. People ask me that question all the time. The way I see it is, I'm at a point in my career where I'm still a factor to win every race I enter for at least the next two years.
SCR: When you do decide to retire, will you still be involved in Winston Cup racing?
Wallace: I have every intention of remaining one of the key players at Penske Racing and being the guy, along with Roger Penske and Don Miller, who selects my successor.
SCR: How is your youngest son, Stephen's, racing career coming along these days?
Wallace: I've run Stephen in the Bandelero and Legends cars at Charlotte the last few years. I've got a guy building a Dodge Intrepid so we can test him at Late Model Stock tracks around the area. As wild as this might sound at the moment, my plan is for Stephen to take over the No. 2 car when I retire.