Wallace set for milestone start
All Kenny Wallace wanted in life was to matter.
The youngest of NASCAR’s famous Wallace brothers has been a central part of NASCAR since 1988, and is poised to make his milestone 900th-career NASCAR start in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.
"When I was in St. Louis growing up as a kid, to know I was able to race 900 NASCAR races is a dream come true," Wallace said.
Those 900 starts have been spread across all three of NASCAR’s top three series over the course of 24 years. In total, Wallace has nine wins, 74 top fives, 204 top 10s and 13 poles.
Not too bad for a kid that used to collect soda bottles on his bike around St. Louis.
Through the years, Wallace’s role in the NASCAR garage has evolved from a young know-it-all, to a seasoned driver, to a respected veteran.
While the majority of his success has come in the Nationwide Series, Wallace spent 18 years of his career racing in the Sprint Cup Series, and was part of an amazing rookie field in 1993 that also included Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte.
Wallace’s career might not have taken the same path as his Rookie of the Year competition — both Gordon and Labonte went on to become Sprint Cup Series champions — but Wallace isn’t going to "cry over spilt milk" and wonder what could have been.
Instead, the 50-year-old is content with his lot in life and his place within the sport.
Given his first NASCAR start by the late Dale Earnhardt, Wallace learned all he could from veterans like Earnhardt, Harry Gant and Jack Ingram in his early days.
As his career progressed, he emerged as a serious contender in the Nationwide Series, a solid driver in the Sprint Cup Series, and is now doing all he can to help the next generation of drivers in the sport.
Just as many consider Jeff Burton to be the unofficial ‘mayor’ of the Sprint Cup Series garage, Wallace sees himself playing a similar role on the Nationwide Series side of things.
From providing RAB Racing teammate Alex Bowman advice about racing at Richmond, to giving pointers to Johanna Long about buying a dirt car, Wallace’s impact on the sport — while it may not be front and center — is certainly impactful.
But it’s not just the younger drivers who have Wallace to thank.
"I think I’m kind of like the poster child for the Nationwide Series," Wallace said. "I think I’m the driver that made it OK for guys like Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers, when you have trouble in the (Sprint) Cup Series, to come back and race Nationwide."
As Wallace makes this milestone start, he is looking toward the next stages of his NASCAR career. Racing a very limited schedule on the NASCAR side, he keeps active racing on dirt tracks across America, in addition to his duties with FOX Sports 1.
Don’t look for Wallace to retire from driving anytime soon, but the veteran is ready and eager to give up a major part of racing.
"I am not retiring from driving NASCAR," Wallace said. "What I am retiring from is being on my knees begging for $100,000 a race. I have retired from looking for sponsorships."
Over the last two years, Wallace has funded his racing career through his own personal finances. Calling the experience "brutal," both Wallace and his wife spent their time and efforts searching for sponsors on their own to fund the passion.
All told, however, Wallace says he wants to continue representing companies and run 15-20 NASCAR races a year, but reiterated he has "retired from searching for sponsorships," and is ready to scream it from the top of a mountain.
Do not look for Wallace to run any start-and-park efforts, either. The veteran says one of his proudest feats has been racing as hard as he could in each and every one of his career starts to date.
Throughout Wallace’s 24-year NASCAR career, there are certainly a number of races that stand out as particularly memorable.
On top of the list is his first Nationwide Series win in 1991. Wallace called the win at Volusia Speedway, "the greatest feeling in my life," second only to having children.
The second most memorable race came in 2001 at Rockingham, where the worst he finished all weekend was second.
Finishing the season in the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 1 car filling in for injured driver Steve Park, Wallace had a career weekend that November at Rockingham. Wallace started second in the Nationwide Series race, and capitalized on the final restart to take the lead and break a three-year winless streak. On the Sprint Cup Series side, Wallace sat on the pole, led 101 laps and finished second to Joe Nemechek.
The third race that stands out for Wallace was Dale Earnhardt’s dramatic come-from-behind win at Talladega in 2000. With help from Wallace, Earnhardt bobbed and weaved his way from 18th to first in the final four laps of the race to score his final career win.
"I’ve never been praised so much for finishing second," Wallace said.
Wallace notes that Michael Waltrip recalled in his book, "In the Blink of an Eye," that Earnhardt gathered his team before the 2001 Daytona 500 and gave his drivers a pep talk before the now-infamous race.
"He told all the drivers, ‘I want you to do what Kenny Wallace did to me at Talladega. If you guys stay loyal to each other — like Kenny did to me — you can win the Daytona 500,’" Wallace said.
Fourth on Wallace’s list of memorable races is running second to brother Rusty in the 1998 Bud Shootout — now the Sprint Unlimited — at Daytona.
Throughout all those moments and the ups and the downs, Wallace has always remained upbeat, fan-friendly and dedicated to the sport that has provided him with a career.
"I am excited about this week. I’m focused," he said. "I am enjoying the moment. I’m real grateful to NASCAR.
"NASCAR’s always getting bashed for everything, but in the end, NASCAR has given me and my family a dream. I mean that from the bottom of my heart."
While his driving career may be in its twilight years, there is no doubt Wallace has left — and is continuing to leave — his mark on the sport. A guy who can still get it done behind the wheel, and who is a valued voice in the garage and with the fans, the driver nicknamed "Herman" has certainly made a name for himself in NASCAR.