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Fontana abuzz about Wallace's retirement

He didn't want to race longer than Earnhardt

By Tim Haddock
Staff Writer

Saturday, September 04, 2004 -

FONTANA -- One of the first times NASCAR Nextel Cup Series driver Rusty Wallace talked about retiring from racing was just before the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Wallace was with his good friend Dale Earnhardt on a boat in Daytona Beach the night before the race. They were talking about when one or the other might decide to stop racing.

Earnhardt told Wallace he was only going to race for a year, maybe two more. Then Earnhardt asked Wallace when he was going to retire.

"I just threw a number out," said Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Winston Cup champion and driver of the No. 2 Dodge for Penske Racing South. "He said, 'Well, that's when I'm going to quit, too.' We kept talking about quitting at the same time."

As it turned out, the Daytona 500 was Earnhardt's last race. He died on the last corner of the race, slamming head-on into the Turn 4 wall. That deadly accident is one of the reasons why Wallace has decided to leave stock car racing.

As Wallace prepares for today's Pop Secret 500 at California Speedway, talk of his retirement after the 2005 season is abundant.

Kenny Wallace, a driver on the NASCAR Busch Series, said he knew his brother was going to retire before he turned 50. Earnhardt was 49 when he died on the last turn of the Daytona 500 in 2001, and Rusty, who turns 50 on Aug. 14, 2006, didn't want to race longer than his friend and rival.

"I'm very close to Rusty," Kenny Wallace said. "I told my father seven months ago, Rusty's going to retire before he gets to 50 years old. My dad said, 'Why do you say that?' And I said, 'Rusty patterned himself after Dale Earnhardt and Dale didn't make it to 50.' "

Kenny's prediction turned out to be right on. A month and a half later, Rusty told his father that the 2005 season would be his last.

But Earnhardt's death isn't the only reason why Wallace has decided to park his race car for good. His son Stephen is almost old enough to start racing on the NASCAR Busch Series. He wants to see his son race in the Hooters Pro Cup and start working his way up the NASCAR ladder.

"But as he talked, the Dale Earnhardt thing affected him more than people know," said Brendan Gaughan, driver of the No. 77 Dodge for Penske-Jasper Racing. "And he's got kids that he wants to watch race and he's got stuff that he wants to do and that's what he's going to focus on."

Rusty Wallace made his retirement announcement at Daytona International Speedway in Florida on Monday. Kenny Wallace and the rest of his family were at the track when Rusty called it quits.

"It was really emotional at the start," Kenny Wallace said. "But then towards the end, realizing that just like any athlete, that there's another part of life, now we're kind of excited for Rusty to play his new role and see how it works out."

Rusty Wallace is among NASCAR career leaders in Cup wins and winnings. His 55 wins rank him eighth and he has won nearly $40 million in his 24-year career. He won at least one race in 16 consecutive years, including the 2001 Cup race at California Speedway. Only Ricky Rudd and Richard Petty had streaks as long in the modern era (since 1972).

"I will say it was sad for me because it's the way I always knew my brother," Kenny Wallace said. "We grew up dreaming about being in NASCAR. The guys I grew up just idolizing are just getting ready to quit."

Rusty Wallace said he wants to go out while he's still at the top of his game. The argument could be made that he is. He won the race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia in April and was in the top 10 in points for most of the first half of the season.

And even though he says Earnhardt's death wasn't the motivating factor of his decision, he admits it did play a part.

"His death hasn't caused me to retire," Rusty Wallace said. "His death hasn't caused me to get scared. His death hasn't caused me to do anything different. I just thought it was an unbelievable shame that the guy did that much in his life, and boom, he couldn't enjoy any of it."

Tim Haddock, (818) 713-3715 timothy.haddock@dailynews.com

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