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Rusty Wallace not content without 500 win of his own



Published: Thu, February 13, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



He's won just about everything except this race, so it's time.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For more than 20 years Rusty Wallace has had this love-hate thing with Daytona International Speedway. In 85 stock car starts, he has only the 1989 IROC and 1998 Budweiser Shootout victories to show for it. All told, he's 0-for-39 in Winston Cup point races and not a whole lot better in his other starts here.

That includes only eight top-10s in 20 Daytona 500s and eight top-10s in 19 of the mid-summer Pepsi 400s. He's also 0-for-21 (with 14 top-10s) in 125-mile qualifying races and 1-for-in 16 Shootouts. He's NASCAR's winningest driver (54, tied for eighth all-time) without a Daytona 500 on his resume.

Has special ring

"That's why I'd rather win a 500 than another championship," he said. "To me, this is the world's premiere race. Everybody says the Indy 500, but with no disrespect intended, not to me. This is the one for me because it has that special ring to it -- the Daytona 500. I've won just about everything except this race, so it's time."

He's made 11 of his 20 Daytona 500 starts in GM products and the last nine in Fords. After he and rookie teammate Ryan Newman finished in the top 10 in points last year, they made a high-profile switch from Ford to Dodges. It was a major coup for Dodge's three-year-old NASCAR program since Wallace and team owner Roger Penske are high-profile stars. And it's evident that Newman is a potential superstar with unlimited marketing appeal.

"We had nine good years with Ford and we appreciate their help," said Walt Czarnecki, vice-president of Penske South. "But we felt we'd gone as far with them as we could. Once we went to Dodge headquarters and saw their commitment and technical resources, we felt very comfortable making the switch. Seeing their tech center at Auburn Hills [Mich.] put us over the top. Their resources are second to none."

Switch and scramble

By all accounts, Penske South played the game right. Its contract with Ford Motor Company ran through last season, so it couldn't start working on Dodge cars or engines until after the Nov. 17 finale at Homestead. "I wasn't too excited about it," said Don Miller, the organization's general manager. "It was a monumental thing to attempt in three months. We converted 35 cars to Dodge and built some brand-new ones in the off-season."

One of which Wallace hopes is stout in qualifying. He gets another shakedown run in Thursday's 125-miler to prep for next weekend's Daytona 500. He ran well in Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, overcoming an equalized tire to reach fourth in the final laps only to get shuffled to 12th at the end.

"I've been close in the 500 [three top-fives], so maybe Dodge is the missing link," he said. "We're not down here thinking we can win, we're down here knowing we can win. The Ford-to-Dodge thing has gone so much smoother than I expected. We're really more ready for the 500 than we've been in a long time."




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