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McGEE: Wallace's three-year plan includes title

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Ryan McGee

 
   
 
2002: 1 pole, 7 top 5's, 17 top 10's, 7th in points

Key stat: 0 wins

How big of a deal was it that failed to win a race last year? The last season that he didn't visit Victory Lane was 1985. That's the year that brought us Madonna, Swatches, New Coke and Back to the Future. Ronald Reagan had just started his second term as president.

The point, folks, is that it had been a long time since the favorite son of St. Louis had gone oh-fer.

For what it's worth, Rusty did come close to winning, finishing second four times. Among those runner-up efforts were his tortuous third "first-loser" effort in August's Brickyard 400 and a bump-and-run loss to at Bristol later than month.

The 2002 season — and the 16-year streak — ended with a thud and a 14th-place finish at Homestead on November 17.

"It's probably one of the saddest parts of my life today, I'll tell you that," Wallace said as he tried to duck out of the garage and head home. "To not win and to fall back into seventh in points. It was just a terrible day, everything was."

Not helping matters was what Wallace was subjected to over on the other side of the Penske Racing garage. Rookie teammate blistered the competition — including Rusty — with a series-leading six poles and 22 top 10's. He also won one points-paying race and edged out Wallace for the sixth spot in the final standings.

Wallace swears it doesn't bother him, but don't believe it.

What's different for 2003

The ride. After nine seasons in a Ford, Wallace will be behind the wheel of a Dodge Intrepid in 2003. The last time that Wallace switched car makes was 1994. After winning 10 races in a 1993 Pontiac Grand Prix, Wallace moved to the Ford Thunderbird starting with the second race of the '94 season at Rockingham.

"Yeah, people thought we were nuts," Wallace remembers. "Then we won that race at Rockingham by a full lap. We won eight races and had a ton of top 10's (17) that year. We finished third in points. Just blew everybody's doors off."

Could it be déjà vu all over again?

"Hell yeah it could be. I damn sure hope so, anyway."

Why he could do better than 10th

Truthfully, he should. His chances of winning Winston Cup title number two will depend on his ability to find the middle ground between between old reckless Rusty and older, kinder, gentler Rusty.

For nearly a decade, Wallace was knocked as a race winner that wasn't consistent enough over the season to win titles. Now he has the consistency down — his 29 top-20 finishes were second only to 's 30 in 2002 — but he has lost the handle on wins. Last season, he could have very easily won four races. Four wins plus 29 top 20's typically leads to championships ... but if he is going to make run, he needs to hurry up. Time is running out ... and the retirement rumors are starting to swell.

"Everybody keeps talking to me about that for some reason. I guess when you get (to be) 46 years old, that's the question you get asked (and) that's OK. I'm going to drive for at least three more years. I'm not looking for anything after three. I've always said the day I can't be competitive and I'm just out there running, I don't want nothing to do with it.

"I'm not even close to that."

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of which returns Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. local on Fox Sports Net and which returns on Feb. 16 at 10:30 a.m. ET on Fox Sports Net.

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