Angst, but no thanks, for Penske teammates

Daytona 500

February 15, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Rusty Wallace has always run well at Martinsville, Va., and as the laps dwindled there last autumn, he was in a position to win.

That is, until his Penske teammate, Ryan Newman, crossed him up on a restart, pushed him up the track and then refused to give way and let Wallace back in line. Wallace fell back in the field and finished 10th. Newman came home third.

After the race, Wallace ran his car into Newman's on pit road. It was the most visible display of long-running animosity between the two.

Feuds in NASCAR are as old as the sport, but seldom do they become as obvious among teammates as the one currently simmering between Wallace and Newman.

As preparations for Sunday's Daytona 500 continue, a lot of eyes are watching the Penske garages to see how the teammates are coping.

"Rusty and I have differences of opinion on a lot of things," Newman said. "But Rusty and Ryan don't need to be going nuts."

Said Wallace: "There are a number of drivers who don't like each other. Ryan and I will put it all on the table and knock it out."

Said Newman: "The point is, we've had feuds in this sport from its beginning. Conflict is what we live off of."

The two have met briefly to talk it out, but there are still tremors. When Wallace was asked if he and Newman have a communication problem, he guffawed.

"There is no communication problem," he said. "We don't communicate at all. What I'd like is a little respect for what we've done and the millions we've spent on testing. But he's young and he wants to be supported. He has been hired to do a job and thinks everything that's here should be here."

Newman, taking his turn, said he knows Wallace is hungry for wins in this, his final season, and adds that he supports Wallace's efforts. But ...

"I know Rusty wants respect," he said. "But respect is supposed to go both ways."

To Wallace, it is simply the latest edition of a generation gap.

Wallace, 48, is Roger Penske's partner, and Newman technically is his employee. Wallace was the 1989 Cup champion. He has helped build the team into a major force.

Wallace has come to the point in his career where every victory could be his last. And, he said, he has earned the right to a little on-track deference from everyone - especially from his own teammate.

"I know Ryan's issues," Wallace said. "But I want to sit down with him and hear what he has to say. Maybe I'm missing something. I'm willing to listen. ... We've got to get it right going into this season."

Newman won twice last year, qualified for the season-ending Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship and finished seventh. He captured a season-high nine poles and, at age 27, makes it clear it is time for him to win his first title.

He isn't playing second fiddle to anyone.

"Respect isn't just about me giving a guy room or letting a guy squeeze back in line on a short track," Newman said.

That was never more apparent than at Martinsville last October, when Newman pushed his teammate up the track and then wouldn't let him back in line with six laps left in the race.

"I've never seen anything like what happened there," said two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte. "You're not going to let someone by, but ... I've never had a teammate who wouldn't let me back in line in a situation like that."

Rick Hendrick, who owns Labonte's car and those of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch, said he doesn't understand how that situation has been allowed to continue to boil.

"It's to their advantage to get that fixed," Hendrick said. "If you're a prima donna, you couldn't work for me. If they drove for me, I'd just jerk a knot in them."

In fact, Hendrick had such an experience - briefly - in the early 1990s, when Ricky Rudd and Ken Schrader drove for him. They had a chance to finish first and second at Martinsville. Instead, they took each other out.

"It was a bad situation. We had our own crew members fighting with each other on pit road," Hendrick said. "We had a meeting. I told them I didn't care what their reasons were, if they were going to drive for me, that was never going to happen again."

And it didn't.

Penske, who has watched the on- and off-track drama between his two drivers, brushed it off last week.

"They know they've got a job to get done," Penske said. "These are grown men, and obviously this is an energy-charged sport. You take one night when one guy thought he could win the race and got bumped by the other one. It's just one of those things.

"I guess I'd rather have to grab the backs of their belt than be kicking them in the butt."

Daytona 500

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup season opener and premier event

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

Track size and shape: 2.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval

Capacity: 185,000

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Defending champion: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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