R. Wallace's win ends 105-race drought

He easily beats Labonte at Martinsville to gain first victory since 2001

Auto Racing

April 19, 2004|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - There was but one word that Rusty Wallace would, could or should say yesterday as he climbed from his Dodge in victory lane at the Advance Auto Parts 500 at Martinsville Speedway:

"Finally!"

At age 47, three years and 105 races removed from his last win, Wallace caught his breath, sighed with enormous relief, and gathered words for what he had just washed away with his 55th career victory:

"Man, it's been so long and we've been so close!"

His 54th win was a distant memory from April 29, 2001, at California Speedway.

The colorful veteran's peers were so happy for him that second-place Bobby Labonte said it all for the consensus, cracking that the only better story from the day "would have been if I'd hit him coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap, flipped him over and he would have burst into flames, slid down the front stretch on his roof, shooting flames and sparks, and still won the race. That would have been perfect for him."

"He's probably right," Wallace said. "He heard me say that a long time ago at Atlanta, when I was cocky and didn't know what I was talking about.

"I don't want to be upside down and on fire, but that's pretty dramatic. I've done all the dramatic stuff. Now I'm just happy we could win a race."

At sundown yesterday - the race running late because of a 1-hour, 17-minute red flag for track repairs - Wallace made what on the surface was a fairly mundane runaway of the finish. But knowledge of who was winning was drama enough to send a sellout crowd of more than 85,000 to a standing ovation for the final two laps.

Wallace shrugged off any sort of justice for his persistence through the drought.

"This sport doesn't owe me a thing," he said. "It's been awful good to me. But I do want to thank the fans who stuck with me through this."

Labonte decided to sit back and savor the waning laps, since he couldn't catch Wallace anyway.

"We had a good car but not good enough at the end to catch Rusty and pass him," Labonte said.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third after leading on two occasions but dropping back with 90 of the 500 laps left, because of an understeer in his Chevrolet. Then he got a mismatched set of tires on his final pit stop.

The victim of the worst fluke of the day was Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole and dominated the early stages until a chunk of concrete broke loose from the track surface and damaged his Chevrolet on Lap 284.

The pothole caused by the broken concrete caused Michael Waltrip to spin just seconds after Gordon's mishap, and the ensuing caution was quickly followed by the red flag, which stopped the race.

Wallace had mingled in the top five without leading until he passed Jimmie Johnson on Lap 457, just as the final caution came out. The green flag flew again with just 37 laps remaining, and Wallace had clear sailing from there.

"After I got the lead," he said, "I had to talk to myself: `Be smooth ... hit your marks ... don't screw up.'"

It all amounted to the final minutes of nearly three years of "a lot of soul searching," Wallace said. "I questioned a lot of things during that dry spell.

"It made me look at myself, my driving style. I asked, `Why is it that I'm not in Victory Lane all the time like I used to be? Am I digging deep enough? I think I am.'

"Finally," he concluded, "today made it all worthwhile."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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