- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace will retire after the 2005 season, saying he is concerned about getting hurt and wants to leave at the top of his game. His decision was influenced by the death of rival Dale Earnhardt in a Daytona 500 crash in 2001.

“It kind of got to me,” Wallace said yesterday at a press conference at the Daytona International Speedway complex. “It made me feel nervous. It made me think hard about it.”

Nerves and losing that mental edge are things rarely talked about in NASCAR, a sport where inches are the difference between a safe pass and a fatal crash.

The 48-year-old Wallace, considered one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, has won 55 races. He made his NASCAR debut in 1980 and has won almost every major race except the Daytona 500.

“This is my last shot at the Daytona 500,” Wallace said of the race run every February. “The Daytona 500 is still the granddaddy of them all. It’s the race I haven’t won, and I’m going to try my darndest to win it.”

Wallace, who drives for Penske Racing South, intends to stay in racing as a team owner and mentor for younger drivers after he retires. Brothers Mike and Kenny and 17-year-old son Stephen are drivers. Stephen Wallace was hospitalized overnight last week after crashing at Bristol Motor Speedway during the Hooters Pro Cup Race.

Rusty Wallace also owns a Busch team and recently hired Jamie McMurray to drive for him. McMurray is rumored to be the replacement for Wallace in 2006.

Wallace also plans to do TV commercials tied to his corporate sponsorships with Miller Brewing Co. and other companies.

“It’s hard for a great driver to say, ‘Look, it’s time,’ ” said Roger Penske, majority owner of Penske Racing South. “But I think that’s the position of a great driver to say ‘I know when it’s time for me to move on.’ ”

Wallace became a full-time competitor on the circuit in 1984, when he was rookie of the year. He claimed the series national driving title in 1989 and finished runner-up for the championship in 1988 and 1993. His most recent victory was in April in Martinsville, Va.

“It’s time. I feel it,” Wallace said of his retirement decision. “I know I’m doing the right thing, and I feel good about it.”

Wallace is the first veteran driver among his contemporaries to announce such plans, but others probably aren’t too far behind. Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte were all born the same year as Wallace. Bill Elliott, 48, ran his last full season in 2003 and is competing in a partial schedule. Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer are 47, Mark Martin is 45 and Kyle Petty is 44. Martin indicated that, like Wallace, 2005 will be his last season.

Wallace brought an enthusiasm and intensity to racing that helped spread NASCAR’s popularity the past 20 years, said Brian France, chairman and chief executive of NASCAR.

“Whenever we needed Rusty to help us win the people over … he would jump on an airplane and do whatever it takes to help us grow the sport,” Mr. France said.

Bill France Jr., co-vice chairman of NASCAR, who handed control of NASCAR over to son Brian last year, said he would miss Wallace’s outspokenness “despite all the times he has given us [heck] about one thing or another.”

“Whatever his feelings about a particular issue, Rusty always has been interested in the betterment of the sport,” Mr. France said.

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