As Rusty Wallace works his way around the paperclip-shaped track at Martinsville Speedway, preparing for Sunday's Advance Auto Parts 500, he is being doggedly pursued by something he can't escape - his own words.
For Wallace, his 22nd year of racing stock cars at the highest level will be his last. He made that announcement prior to the end of the 2004 season, and although he has shown signs of wanting to recant, Wallace also appears to know that unless you're Michael Jordan or any given heavyweight boxer, once you say you're done, then you're probably done.
"I'm still retiring. I made the decision to do it, and I don't want to confuse the fans, I really don't," Wallace said. "I don't want to confuse anybody. On the other hand, I keep telling myself I want to leave the door open because I still love the sport. I mean, I know if it wasn't going to be this year, it's for sure going to be next year. There's a lot of things I want to do."
Wallace finds himself in a quandary of his own making. He sounded relieved and excited about the future when he first announced his pending retirement, but it is apparent that the sights, the sounds and the smells of intense racing each week are a sensory siren's song Wallace is finding it tough to fight off.
"My son Steven is just doing really, really good in his preparation for racing, and I really need to be around him some more. And my car dealerships are doing well, but .●.●. look, I do love the racing. I don't want to get wishy-washy on this. Would I like to run another year? Maybe so."
Wallace won at Martinsville last year and finished 16th in the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup point standings, the 21st consecutive season he has been in the top 20. He has finished in the top 10 in 16 of the last 19 seasons since becoming a full-time competitor in the series in 1984.
On Sunday in Virginia, Wallace will start his 667th consecutive Cup race. He clearly has grown accustomed to strapping himself in the cockpit, and stomping on the gas, and when he enjoys a certain degree of success, the decision to take the exit lane after the final stop on his farewell tour later this year eats away at him anew.
"Looking back right now, maybe I should have gone another year before I did it." Wallace said. "I did it because I wanted to be the only guy doing it and I wanted to do a really good tour, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm sticking with my decision right now. I did tell people I'm not going to race anything."
When Wallace unveiled his "Last Call" tour, which blends well with his sponsorship from Miller Lite, fellow racing veteran Mark Martin had not announced that 2005 would be his final season, and Terry Labonte had not yet released his plan to reduce his 2005 Cup schedule to just 10 races.
Now Wallace stands tied for eighth in the points race, after being down in 23rd place at this time a year ago. Entering the sixth race in 2004, Wallace had not led a single lap. This year he has led almost nine percent of the total laps raced to date, and looking into that crowded rear-view mirror has not helped him stay rock solid on his decision to leave.
"I've kinda opened the door back up to where if I wanted to run a couple of races [next year], I could," Wallace said recently. "I don't plan on it, but I do plan on running the 2006 24 Hours of Daytona. I've never done that before, and I want to do that before I'm all said and done and be able to say I've done that one. I know I'm doing that one. Anything after that, I don't know."
Again, he qualifies his position, and toys with other options that seem to follow a circuitous route, but always right back to the racetrack. His ownership of a Busch Series team makes that easier to navigate, but his inner struggle with the finality of it all gets even cloudier.
"I have even kicked around the concept of maybe it would be cool like I've been with the Busch car where everything is about owner points, and to have two drivers, maybe in one team, I could see that," Wallace said. "I got to thinking about it the other day, I was joking around, and I said I would run half seasons, and they could run half seasons since we're sick of running 36 races anyway, but that's just a thought. That's just stuff I throw against the wall, but, no, I'm retiring full-time."
Wallace is looking for nothing short of a win this weekend, although that would likely add fuel to the competitive fire he has yet to extinguish.
"Well, it would mean everything to win here again," he said. " I mean, yeah, I know I'm retiring full-time at the end of the year, but I'm not treating this like it. I'm treating it like I've got 30 years of racing left. I'm giving it my all this year so it'd mean everything for me to get in the top 10 and go on to try to win a championship because people never talk about us in the championship, but I know down deep what it's all about and I know that we definitely are legitimate championship capability."
Wallace, who won 10 times in 1993, and had his streak of 16 years in a row with a victory broken in 2002, will likely be fighting that inner struggle over hanging up the helmet all season long.
"I told myself, 'Self, get halfway through the year and see where you're at and see if you're still comfortable with your decision,'●" Wallace said.
That halfway point comes about 7,000 racing miles from now.
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