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Wallace will have his last hurrah this weekend with season finale
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Rusty Wallace certainly hoped to go out on top, to end his 22-year career with a second NASCAR championship.
No longer eligible to win the Nextel Cup title, Wallace will have to settle for what he does have: 55 victories, a rookie of the year title, the 1989 series championship and more than $45 million in earnings.
Wallace believes that's enough to make him one of the all-time NASCAR greats.
"I just wanted to be remembered as one of the competitors who quit at the top of his game," he said. "When they talk about Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, I want my name to be mentioned with those guys."
Wallace will race for the final time Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, wrapping up a long and storied career. He was almost always a contender, winning at least one race in 16 consecutive seasons and finishing in the top 10 in points from 1993 through 2002.
He tailed off a bit in his final years, until a resurgence this season put him in position to go out a champion. He qualified for the Chase for the championship, only to falter once it began. He comes here eighth in the standings and mathematically eliminated from winning the title.
Knowing that the end is only days away, Wallace admitted he's beginning to feel "a little sad."
"I'll be in the car until the race is over and then it'll be time for tears in your beers or enjoyment," Wallace said. "Hopefully I'll be saying 'This is awesome. Isn't this the greatest time in the world to win my last race?' Then if I don't, one thing I can say is it's been a great year.
"I went out on the top of my game. I made the Chase for the championship. I made a lot of money. I made a lot of fans and everybody treated me really, really good and it was a great last year."
He'll leave behind a legacy, both on and off the track. He had intense rivalries with Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd and Jeff Gordon, and was often outspoken, many times using expletive-laden rants to deliver his message.
Fined $5,000 once for cursing on his in-car radio, Wallace paid up in pennies.
"I've always said what's on my mind, and I think I've got the respect of NASCAR," he said. "They know Rusty and they know his personality and they know they can trust me, but they know if I don't like something I'm going to say it."
He'll continue talking with some broadcasting work, and he won't stray too far from the sport. Wallace has already made the shift toward car owner with his own Busch team, and there might come a day when he fields a car for his talented 18-year-old son, Stephen.
"I'll be involved in the sport," Wallace said. "I'll always be involved in the sport and be competitive. You can't be reminiscent with the old times. You've got to get with the new times and get with the new stuff and get rocking and rolling."
He's sold his shares in Penske Racing South back to team owner Roger Penske, and he'll hand over the keys to the No. 2 Dodge to Kurt Busch. The transition already is set to be rocky, with Busch coming in following a reckless driving charge last week in Arizona that led Roush Racing to kick him out of its car.
But Wallace was confident that Penske could right what Wallace called "a big black eye."
"One thing about Mr. Penske, he always stands behind his guys through thick and thin," Wallace said. "I've seen me down in the dirt and he's down there with a shovel digging me out. Roger is the right guy to help him."
Wallace plans to lean on Penske one last time, letting the owner help him wade through the emotions of his final race weekend. He plans to stay on Penske's boat in Miami, wake up on race day and have breakfast with the boss. Then it will be off to the track one final time.
Wallace knows it will be difficult to get out of the car at the end of the race, and he knows those feelings will crop up over and over next season when the series goes on without him. He's confident he's making the right decision.
"I can't be sitting reminiscing about the way it used to be at all," he said. "There's going to be an adjustment time. When they drop that flag on Sunday and I'm not in there, there will be a million times Ill say 'I wish I was in there' because I could have done this or I could have done that. That will be going through my mind."