Being ninth on NASCAR’s all-time winningest drivers list is rather impressive. Winning four races as a car owner, that’s pretty good too. Oh by the way, being a commentator after his days behind the wheel were over probably helped out his case at being inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame as well.
Russell William Wallace Jr., otherwise known as Rusty Wallace, will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. as an introduction to the NASCAR Acceleration weekend. As a part of the fourth class to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Wallace will be aside Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas as well as the great Leonard Wood.
Wallace’s journey started in 1980 as he made his NASCAR debut at Atlanta driving for Roger Penske in a sponsor less No. 16 Chevrolet. The only man to beat Wallace in his debut was Dale Earnhardt Sr. driving the No. 2 car for Rod Osterland in a year where they won the championship. However, Wallace and Penske went their separate ways until they reunited in 1991. By then, Wallace had won 18 races within five years and was contending for championships every season.
In 1989, a season which Wallace didn’t run as consistent as he did in 1988 where he had 19 top-five’s and 23 top-10′s, arguably his best season in NASCAR competition, Wallace won the championship with Raymond Beadle’s No. 27 Kodiak Pontiac which Wallace made famous from 1987 until the team signed on Miller Genuine Draft as his sponsor. When the offer to driver for Roger Penske on a full-time basis came about, Wallace couldn’t resist and neither could his sponsor.
To this day, Miller has stuck with Penske Racing after joining Wallace in the No. 2 car in 1990 which is the longest sponsor-team relationship in the sport. Wallace’s aggressive driving style was perfect for his generation. He had great battles with Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and the rest of what was then the Winston Cup Series drivers.
He was able to win an astonishing 55 races over the course of his 25-year career in NASCAR’s highest level of racing, but was never able to win a race in the lower tier series in a combined 46 starts. Wallace also won the 1991 IROC Series championship as he won three of the four events in that season.
Though he was rather aggressive and hard headed at times, Wallace was one of the cleanest drivers on the NASCAR circuit until he decided it was time to hang up his helmet in 2005 after he won only one race in his final three years as a driver. In his prime, Wallace was probably one of the hardest competitors to beat on a weekly basis. When he and Roger Penske reunited, it took some time to regain their chemistry, but within a few years the team clicked like few others. In 1993, Wallace dominated the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He won ten races that season and would have won the championship if he didn’t have four straight DNF’s at Sonoma, Charlotte, Dover and Pocono. Earnhardt ended up edging out Wallace by 80 points that season which would have probably swung in favor of Wallace if he had finished a few positions better in those races.
Even with his late career struggles, Wallace showed race fans that he didn’t forget to drive just because he was aging. In his final season, he should have, could have and would have won the Food City 500 at Bristol, but his handling started to fade away in the second half of the race and finished 13th after leading 157 laps which was the most laps he led since he led 182 laps at Rockingham in 2003.
Wallace is also known as one of the best road course racers in NASCAR history. He’s won at all three modern-era road courses which include Riverside, Watkins Glen as well as Sonoma which show that he was an all-around racer. When he retired, Wallace became a promoter for the Iowa Speedway which he helped design, similar to one of his favorite tracks, Richmond. He also became a broadcaster for ESPN and is also a motivational speaker. In 2009 he made his comeback in racing at Bristol in the Scotts Saturday Night Special where he finished second to long-time rival, Sterling Marlin. For all of the great things that Wallace has done for the sport, inducting him in the Hall of Fame is just one small way to show how much he’s appreciated across the NASCAR fan base.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.