Rusty Wallace looks just a little embarrassed. He is the defending Winston Cup champion and he knows he has been caught in a very old trap. Wallace, like every other first-time champion, thought he would repeat his winning performance this season. He thought defending the title wouldn't be any harder than winning the first one.
So much for thinking.
"It's damn harder to defend it," said Wallace, who yesterday stopped in Baltimore on his way to Dover Downs International Speedway. "I'm not down about it, though. I don't cry and sulk and bore myself to death about it. I guess things like this happen.
"You try all your life to get to the top and you get there. You want to do it again. But . . . I've had some engine problems. We've lost five races because of engine failure. You can't win when you do things like that."
Tomorrow he will attempt to qualify his Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac for the Peak Antifreeze 500 at Dover, and on Sunday, he'll try doing something he's never done -- win a race on the Monster Mile. The green flag falls at noon Sunday.
Wallace, with 2,952 points, is fourth in the championship race behind Mark Martin (3,344), Dale Earnhardt (3,328) and Geoff Bodine (3,120).
"If I was in third, I'd say it was a three-car race," he said. "But Geoff is too inconsistent to win it and I think I'd have to win the last seven races and those other guys would have to have a lot of bad luck."
More than anything, he is admiring of the Martin and Earnhardt teams. While he is good friends with Earnhardt, he has developed a real respect for Martin.
"If those guys win this championship, they will have earned it," Wallace said. "They have been unbelievably successful, but they have worked hard for it. That team is the last to leave the garage every night, and when they leave they're the dirtiest crew you've ever seen. And they don't do any trash talking. All they do is keep their mouths shut. They just do it."
Wallace could be envious, but he isn't. He could be grumbling at his crew, but he isn't. It's a team effort, he said. And, as he said, he could be crying the blues, but he isn't.
Yesterday, Wallace simply grinned.
"I look at the overall picture," he said. "I can look at all the problems we had and can still say I ran great at all the tracks and if we hadn't had engine trouble, we could have won.
"Anyway," he reasoned, "it's only one year. It would be a real problem not to repeat, if there weren't ever going to be another season. But there is next year. I can win it again then. And, what the heck, I could still win the next seven races. I really could, I won six of seven in 1988 to take the points race to the wire. I could really do it."
When you're the Winston Cup champion, you can do just about anything -- except, perhaps, repeat the feat.