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Published: Wednesday, 6/15/2005

Wallace really is not quitting

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - As he takes a final lap around the country during his last year of competition, veteran Nextel Cup driver Rusty Wallace will say things that are reflective, sentimental, and sarcastic.

Wallace will say things that are abrupt, erudite and funny, and he will even say a few words that are critical of the sport that has given him a pretty comfortable life.

But one thing he won't say is - never.

The is the final full schedule of racing for Wallace. His principal sponsor, Miller Lite, has turned his concluding fling into a traveling sideshow with a dozen stops that include concerts, autograph sessions and a tribute to Wallace's Nextel Cup career - a career that started back when Ronald Reagan was first elected president, Mount St. Helen's erupted and the Rubik's cube was the most popular toy - in 1980.

After running in close to 700 Cup races and winning more than $45 million, Wallace wants his life back, but he is careful to point out that this is a prolonged pit stop, not the end of the road. Wallace has done it all, but admits that it is never enough.

"I've accomplished everything I've wanted to accomplish, and I'm retiring full-time from Nextel Cup racing," said Wallace, who comes to Michigan International Speedway this week to run in Sunday's Batman Begins 400.

"But I'm not going to say that I'll never get in a car again. I don't want to make the mistake of saying 'never' like some guys do, and then have to apologize later. I want to leave all of my options open, including running a few races in my Busch car if I feel like that's what I want to do."

Wallace, a jet-rated pilot who also flies helicopters, owns auto dealerships in Tennessee and has various other ventures that he has been involved with only on a somewhat limited basis because of the demands of the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule. He also wants to spend time watching the career of his son, Steve, who will run in the ARCA race at MIS in August.

"I just thought it over and felt like it was time," Wallace said. "I went back and forth on it for a while like you do with any major decision, but I thought long and hard about it and everything pointed to now being the right time for this."

Wallace, who is currently eighth in the points race, 348 behind leader Jimmie Johnson, said he has chosen to make 2005 his farewell season because he wants to exit near the top of his game. He has watched other drivers hang on too long and possibly sacrifice some dignity earned over many years to run a few years beyond their prime.

"I want to go out in the front of the pack, not a little lost and running somewhere in the back," he said. "I think it's really important not to hang on too long like some guys have done, and struggle your way through. That's not good for the driver, or for the sport."

Wallace, who won six races in 1989 when he claimed his only Cup championship, said the respect of his peers and that of the racing community is too valuable to him to play his exit any other way.

"The sponsors and the fans have been so good to me over the years, and during this 'Last Call' tour I want to do everything I can just to thank them for all that they've done for me," Wallace said. "I've always wanted to be a driver that the fans enjoyed for what I was able to do on the race track, and for the kind of person I am off the track. I want to leave with their respect, and the respect of my fellow drivers. That means a lot to me."

Wallace, who won a career-high 10 races in 1993 but finished second in the points race to Dale Earnhardt Sr., won at least once in each season from 1986-2001. He hit a lull after that and went through 105 races without a trip to victory lane before winning at Martinsville in April of 2004.

"You want to win 'em all, but realistically you know you can't," Wallace said. "I desperately wanted to win a Daytona 500, but that didn't happen for me. I've been close there, and I've been close at the Brickyard, but things happen in racing that kind of get in the way. Overall, it has been good, very good."

Wallace comes to MIS, where he has won five Cup races and an IROC event, focused on adding to his considerable trophy case. He will smile for the sponsors, sign autographs for the fans, and then try and push his way in front out on the track.

"This is my last full season of racing, but that does not mean I am slowing down - not one bit," Wallace said. "I want to enjoy this season and thank a lot of people along the way, but I don't want a pat on the back when it's over. I want to win another championship."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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