FORT WORTH, Texas — Though Rusty Wallace's career might have peaked with his only championship in 1989 on what was then known as the Winston Cup circuit, he spent more than two decades as one of the best drivers in NASCAR's top division.
He finished eighth in points in his final season of 2005, at age 48, before walking into the broadcast booth. This year, Wallace was inducted into both the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame; he was already in the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.
Now, he serves as ESPN's lead studio analyst for its racing coverage. Here's what Wallace thinks about Sunday's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and a few other things:
Q: How do you think things might play out at Texas on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth tied for the points lead and battling for the title?
A: Those guys got out of Talladega and Martinsville clean — I couldn't believe both of them did, but they did — and now they're evenly matched heading to Texas, and they're both fantastic on this mile-and-a-half race track. It's gonna be an incredible thing to watch.
Explain the importance of succeeding on the 1.5-mile tracks in order to win a championship.
On the short tracks and the road courses, you can get away with not having the most horsepower, or the car that's not the best aerodynamically. On the mile-and-a-half, you've got to have the strongest power, the best aerodynamic program, everything. Because the cars are so fast on those tracks, that all those things matter big-time. They don't matter as much at other places. Aerodynamics didn't matter at Martinsville last week. You saw cars with fenders completely knocked off and still running fast. You know the car's gonna be quick at Texas. The new Gen-6 car is breaking track records everywhere.
Is this a two-man race, and do you see one driver with an advantage entering the final three races?
With the third- and fourth-place guys being just 20-some points back, there's still four guys in this thing. Honestly, it's probably just the top two, but right now, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick have to believe they still have a chance right now. I can start making predictions after Texas, but I can't even make one right now, because Jimmie and Matt have been bumper-to-bumper. They're so evenly matched going into Texas, it's incredible. You're just scratching your head. Which one's gonna falter. It's gonna have to be a mistake, because I think they'll both run real good.
How much is the current generation of car similar to what you drove, especially in the early part of your career?
This car is more technologically advanced, but man, those cars we drove — I looked up and saw 158,000 people in the grandstands, us passing everybody, beatin' and bangin', intense racing. What I saw on the track back then was awful damn good, and the stands were packed. Now we're having a little bit of an issue getting the crowd up to where we want it, but that's the same with all sports — stick-and-ball, and everybody. But I look at those days as the template. Sometimes I think the car now is a little too aerodynamically sensitive and maybe we've gotten too techy with these cars. I try to be careful not to sound too old-school or sour grapes, but all I know is what we used to do, and the show we put on, and the amount of people who were in the grandstands. I know it's a different time, but you're not gonna tell my mind to forget that stuff.
As a kid, when did you know you wanted to be a race car driver?
I knew early. My dad, who passed away a couple years ago and went to all my races, he was the racer. He drove those cars as a hobby in the St. Louis area. Me and my brothers helped him. It got into my blood and it just didn't get out. I loved it so much. I was totally hooked.
Every day, I'd come home from school and I'd work on those cars. I wasn't playing video games, or in some damn corner smoking dope or whatever kids are doing these days. Cars were what I was interested in. The 327 Chevy, the 427 Chevy, the Camaro. Just opening the hood, with my jeans and T-shirt on, just tinkering with that thing all the time. My girlfriend, and now wife Patti, right there by my side, bringing us a glass of iced tea. Then loading that thing up and heading to the track. It consumed my life. I just loved it so much, and I still love it to this day.
That was what you did then, and it was just fun. Chip Ganassi told me, and I agree, that a lot of young people have lost the love for the automobile. That's what's hurting. That's why NASCAR's major audience is 50 and over. They witnessed that time I did, and they're still car nuts.
What was your street car back then?
It was a 1967 Chevrolet pickup truck. Solid white with chrome wheels, an incredible stereo and a 6-cylinder engine. I'd pick Patti up and we'd go to Steak 'n Shake in that thing. We'd back that baby in, roll the windows down, and they'd bring us the milkshakes and the cheeseburgers, and we'd sit there and listen to music. That was my car. Man, I loved that thing.