Remembering Rusty before it's too late

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Ryan McGee

It is a rare and beautiful thing, this which we are about to witness.

When Rusty Wallace takes the checkered flag at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, those checkers will not only signify the end of the race, but also the close of nothing less than one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history, a career that has remained just as competitive at the end as it was in the beginning.

Yes, that final lap is still two weeks away. Yes, I know that we are in the middle of a furious two-car battle for the Nextel Cup title. And yes, I know that there should be plenty of time to say goodbye to Rusty between now and the NASCAR Awards Banquet in December.

But the man deserves more, and he deserves it now.

I believe that we as race fans owe it to Wallace to celebrate all that he has accomplished as soon as possible and without distraction. A pause of appreciation that, sadly, he has never truly received.

Since making his Cup series debut at Atlanta in 1980, Wallace's career has seemed unfairly predestined to be overshadowed. His stunning 2nd-place finish that day was upstaged by fellow upstart and race winner Dale Earnhardt, a man on the way to the first of seven Cup titles, many of which came at Wallace's expense. In the late 1980s, Wallace's seemingly endless string of title-contending seasons was lost among the fan frenzies generated by Bill Elliott and the newly-renamed Intimidator. By the time Earnhardt and Elliott slowed down, some kid named Gordon had arrived to steal the spotlight, followed by the "Young Gun" obsession of 2001 and beyond.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of it all, Rusty Wallace won 55 races, earned more than 300 top-five finishes, and oh, by the way, won a championship of his own in 1989.

He finished second in the point standings twice, by a painfully close 80 points to Earnhardt in 1993 and an even more excruciating 24 markers behind Elliott in '88. In all, he has finished inside the top 10 in points 17 times, including this season at the clock-bending age of 49. I could go on and on here, reeling off statistic after statistic, all of which would make you say, "Really? I had no idea!"

Which is exactly why we should step back and take the time right now to look back on Wallace's track record as well as his track records. Now! Before something else steals the spotlight again — the Chase for the Nextel Cup, silly season madness, Ricky Rudd's retirement or perhaps some deal we don't even know about yet.

Let's remember Wallace for his career-long role as yin to Earnhardt's yang. Their two-decade duel is among the top five greatest grandstand-dividing rivalries in NASCAR history. In 1991, I witnessed a group of attorneys on a corporate retreat crash headlong into a free-for-all fist fight over dinner. As my friends and I piled in from other tables to break up the bunkhouse stampede, I uncovered the cause of the tie-jerking melee. Rusty vs. Dale.

Let's remember Wallace as one of the top three drivers of the last 20 years, joining Gordon and Earnhardt. Since 1986, the year that he captured his first Cup win, he ranks second in victories (55), first in short track wins (25), first in top-10 points finishes (17), second in top-10 race finishes (349), fourth in pole positions won (36) and first in memorable quotes.

Wallace has long been the one driver who was never media-trained out of his ability to say aloud what other drivers barely dared even think. He stumped for Bob Dole in Victory Lane at Bristol, declared 2003 as his "biggest suck season ever" and is the only driver to ever get in Earnhardt's face and declare "yours is coming" while actually meaning it. After being fined for dropping an s-bomb on national television, he paid his penalty in pennies and addressed the gathered media by saying, "Let this be a lesson to everyone out there. Don't ever say the word s--- on TV."

Let's remember Russell William Wallace for his burning five-decade desire to annihilate anyone and everyone between his car and Victory Lane. But instead of wrecking his way to the front, he moved there thanks to phenomenal car control, pushing his equipment closer to the ragged edge with each and every lap. Sure, that approach probably cost him in a sport that ultimately rewards the car-conservative tortoise over the hell-bent hare. But isn't the hare a hell of a lot more fun to watch?

Let's remember the brash kid who punted Darrell Waltrip to win the 1989 all-star race. But let's also remember the man that he became, the level-headed spokesman for the entire garage, commanding respect just by walking into the morning drivers meeting.

For every thrilling memory, his career has been punctuated with tragedy. But in the end, it was Wallace who took hold of our emotional steering wheel and guided us through. In 1993 it was Wallace who won at Bristol three days after Alan Kulwicki's death, honoring his old short track foe by turning Kulwicki's trademark reverse "Polish Victory Lap". Seven months later, he swallowed the disappointment of narrowly losing the Cup title to Earnhardt by joining his nemesis in a joint reverse victory lap to honor both Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who was also killed during the season. Eight years later, Wallace stepped up again, using Earnhardt's death as a rallying cry to accelerate safety advances in the sport.

Most of all, let's remember the images of the man. The white No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac sliding across the dirt and grass and blasting its way back onto the track at Watkins Glen. The black and gold No. 2 Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac punching out 10 wins in a single season. The blue and white No. 2 Miller Dodge returning to the winner's circle at Martinsville.

From the afro of the 1980s to the crow's feet of 2005. From the hammer-down youngster to the emotional elder who realized that it was better to go out on top than it was to subject himself to a slow, uncompetitive fade to black. From a kid who refused to take over his father's vacuum cleaner repair business to an immortal in his chosen profession.

For all of that, I say thanks Rusty. And so should anyone who has paid even a passing glance of attention to NASCAR over the last 25 years. If you haven't yet, now is the time. There are only two races left to appreciate the driver of the No. 2 car, so make it count.

You can sure as hell bet he will.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address:

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