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Wallace speeds toward the finish

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rusty Wallace's contemporaries have decided to downshift their racing careers. Mark Martin and Terry Labonte will attempt to make as smooth a lane change as possible from NASCAR's fast-paced and pressure-packed premier circuit, the Nextel Cup Series, to conform to the speed limit of the real world.

In his final season of Cup competition, Martin's "Salute to You" farewell tour will be a tribute to his legion of fans, whom Martin hopes to continue to thrill next year by dabbling in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series. Labonte's "Shifting Gears: Lone Star Style" will enable him to ease off the throttle by doing 10 selected Cup races this season and 10 next season before the native of Corpus Christi, Texas, rides off into the sunset.

But Wallace says he is going to quit cold turkey when he retires from racing at the end of his self-styled 2005 deceleration tour, "Rusty's Last Call."

"If I had to go out with anybody, I couldn't ask for any better than Terry and Mark," said Wallace, who announced last Aug. 30 that he planned to park his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger for good after the season finale Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"You know, I think after [Dale] Earnhardt lost his life [on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500], it kind of got to me," Wallace said at his teary retirement announcement at Daytona USA Motorsports Museum. "It made me a little nervous. It made me think hard about it. You know what? I've won a lot of races. I want to have fun in this sport, and I don't want to get hurt. I'm announcing my retirement. I still feel like I'm a champion. I don't want to get hurt. I want to hang around the sport more.

"At the end of 2005, I'm hanging my hat up from driving, and staying involved on the business end of it."

A single lap has yet to be completed in Wallace's season-long sayonara to the sport he helped build and already, it seems, "Rusty's Last Call" looms as one giant hangover for the 48-year-old driver from St. Louis.

There is the ongoing rancor of Wallace's prickly relationship with his young and cocksure Penske Racing teammate, Ryan Newman. Their simmering feud boiled over last Oct. 22 at Martinsville, Va., where Newman's car clipped Wallace's car late in the race and knocked it out of contention.

Then there are concerns about Wallace's farewell turning into a flop if he is unable to win Sunday's 47th Daytona 500 -- a race in which he is winless in 22 starts -- or, worse, if he is unable to clinch one of the 10 berths in NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, which Wallace failed to do in last year's inaugural chase.

And, to further complicate matters, Wallace has expressed second thoughts.

"I think the reason Terry's not having second thoughts is that he's going to be running 10 races here and 10 races there," Wallace said. "He's still going to be racing. I'm having second thoughts because I've decided not to race any longer. That's the only reason why I've got a second thought. I'm hoping that halfway through the year that it's going to get out of my mind, but I don't know if it will or not."

It has left some wondering if Wallace is truly prepared to walk away from the sport that brought him $43,670,500 in winnings, 55 career victories, 36 poles, and one NASCAR championship, in 1989. It has left some wondering if he is truly prepared to begin the next phase of his life as co-owner of Penske Racing South with legendary car owner Roger Penske, as a car mogul with five dealerships in four Tennessee cities and as the owner of his own Busch Series team, Rusty Wallace Inc.

"No, absolutely not," said Kenny Wallace, Rusty's 41-year-old brother who competes on the NASCAR Busch Series circuit. "I think he got forced into making his decision. What happens is that you get three-quarters through the season and everybody's tired and everybody's aggravated and you kind of get to thinking that it's too much. I think he got about halfway, three-quarters through last year and he got to thinking it was too much. I think the same thing may happen this year.

"He's recharged his batteries and right now he's telling everybody that he doesn't want to quit, but I'm pretty sure when we get halfway through the season, he'll be feeling like he made the right decision."

Besides, Kenny Wallace said with a laugh, "If Rusty decides not to quit, what are they going to call it? `After Hours' or `Happy Hour'? I don't know."

Friction within
He's been known for being brash, outspoken, and stubbornly set in his ways. It's either Rusty's way or the highway, as many of his former crew chiefs have learned. But what continues to rankle Wallace are the questions of his relationship with his teammate, Newman, who during NASCAR's Media Day Feb. 10 intoned he refused to offer Wallace an olive branch in his final season.

"We have no [common] interests whatsoever," Wallace said of Newman. "He's got things that interest him, and I've got things that interest me. He hates golf. I love golf. He plays video games and loves computers and I don't. I love flying airplanes, and he has no interest in that. I love to communicate with my team members and stuff, but they're very, very private people.

"I like him and he's my teammate, and so I'm going to do the best I can to make that all work."

Asked to characterize his relationship with Wallace, Newman replied, "You don't have enough tape."

Then, launching into what seemed like a rehearsed reply, Newman said of Wallace, "Rusty's had a great career and I believe he's in the top 50 drivers, one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history, and I know he's definitely distinguished. I know that in one way he's looking forward to retirement and in the other he's not looking forward to retirement."

But when he was asked what Wallace has meant to him as a teammate, Newman, 27, did not hide his true feelings. "Not much," he said.

Wallace shook his head and forced a smile when apprised of his teammate's remarks.

"You see the attitude he's got?" Wallace said. "Like I said, I'll stand up for what I've done and like I said, I've tried to build the sport and I'm proud of what I've done.

"In order for us to really get the thing right, he's going to have to change his attitude a little bit. That cocky attitude where `I don't care about anybody; I'm the only guy; I'm the only one.' I'm not signed up for that deal.

"I've been here and I know that's not the right way to do it. He can win 1,000 races and still that's not going to be the right way to get it done."

Wallace cited numerous young drivers -- from present Penske rookie driver Travis Kvapil to former Penske rookie Brendan Gaughan to Jamie McMurray and even former Penske teammate Jeremy Mayfield -- whom he's mentored and enjoyed great working relationships with.

"I don't have any problems at all with any competitor," Wallace said. "It just blows me away that my problems are with my own teammate."

Resigned to the fact he was going to have to live with Newman one more year, Wallace added, "I wish him the best and I want him to keep making the team a lot of money. I'm excited about that. I wish him well. If it gets worked out, it's going to be with Mr. Penske figuring it out, because I'm afraid it's too far gone right now."

But, as far as Penske's concerned, it's a closed matter.

"These are grown men and, obviously, this is an energy-charger sport," Penske said. "You take one night when one guy thought he could win the race and got bumped by the other one. It's just one of those things. I guess I'd rather have to grab the back of their belt than be kicking them in the butt.

"They've handled it, and we've got to move on."

Tracking his success
So many men helped to give shape and structure to Wallace's racing career.

Cliff Stewart was responsible for giving Wallace his first full-time ride in NASCAR's premier series in 1984 in a Gatorade-sponsored car, resulting in a pair of top 5s, four top 10s, and a 14th-place finish in the points despite nine DNFs (did not finish).

"Man, that was a blast," Wallace recalled. "I wrecked everything he had. I came back sometimes and all we had left was a radiator cap, but you know what, he won me the Rookie of the Year [in 1984] and that was pretty cool."

Wallace joined forces in 1986 with car owner Raymond Beadle and crew chief Barry Dodson and captured the 1989 NASCAR championship for the Blue Max Racing team.

"I learned a lot from that guy," Wallace said of Beadle, for whom Wallace drove for five seasons, winning 18 races and nine poles. "We had a lot of fun and we never lost a party. I love that guy to death."

But it was his relationship with current partners Penske and Don Miller that Wallace credited as being the vessel that helped his career skyrocket.

"Don helped me build my entire career," Wallace said. "He's been my sounding board for a long time. He's been my go-to guy. He continues to be one of my best friends."

As for Penske? "When I first started driving for Roger, it was the most wonderful day of my life," Wallace said. "When the Blue Max days were over, I asked Roger if he ever thought about getting back into NASCAR. He said, `Hell, yeah, let's go.' He's a guy who's taught me so much about business, and he's taught me a lot about life and a ton about racing. He continues to be one of my best friends."

It has been a partnership that will evolve once Wallace becomes a full-time car owner.

"I think it's absolutely a smart move," Penske said of Wallace's decision to retire. "He's an attractive guy. He's a smart driver. He's got a great reputation. He's one of the best I've ever had interfacing with sponsors.

"I think Rusty can have a great season. He's not at the bottom of his game. We don't want to see him do like some other great drivers and wait until it's almost too late and then decide to close the door.

"I told him this, I said, `You're doing it at the right time.' He made his decision a couple of years ago, and he stayed on track. I think it's going to be fine. I take my hat off to him. I think we're all going to see him have one of his very best seasons. I see it in his eyes."

After missing last year's Chase for the Nextel Cup, is it possible "Rusty's Last Call" could be marred by another missed cut?

"Being in that Chase is a tough situation with the competition like it is," Penske said. "There are 10 or 15 other ones who should be in there also, and that makes it so exciting. But I think Rusty has been in the top 10 for many, many years. There's no reason he can't be in the top 10.

"We've got great equipment. I think he's got a great crew chief in Larry Carter, and he certainly knows how to drive the car. He's got RWI with [son] Stephan coming up and the things he's doing. I told him let's not talk about what happens at the end of the season.

"I think we need to focus on the 2005 Nextel Cup season and what we're going to do. If we start thinking about other things, you're going to lose your focus."

Before his car was wrecked in a seven-car melee in the second qualifying heat of yesterday's Gatorade Duel 150s, Wallace said he had a perfect ending scenario in mind.

"It'd be to win the Daytona 500, make the top 10, and then go down to Homestead and win the finale," he said. "That would be the dream deal. I'd get out the car, get my cigar out, and say, `See you guys later.' "

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