Rusty's triple dip
TOM HIGGINS SCUFFS
Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2012
It was a race in which Rusty Wallace scored a sensational, thriller of a triple at Michigan International Speedway.
When Wallace won the Miller 400 on June 26, 1988 he achieved three firsts:
He triumphed for the first time at the 2-mile track in the Irish Hills southwest of Detroit.
The victory was his first on a superspeedway after two wins on short tracks and three on road courses since joining the circuit fulltime in 1984.
He gave Pontiac its first-ever checkered flag at MIS, much to the delight of Pontiac employees from the surrounding area. The breakthrough came in the speedways 37th NASCAR Cup Series event dating to 1969.
Wallace held off Bill Elliott to win, continuing a stirring streak that propelled him into the Cup Series points lead.
The Michigan race of 24 years ago returns to mind as the Cup Series teams gather again at the speedway near the little town of Brooklyn for this weekends Quicken Loans 400.
Rallying from a lap down after running out of gas, Wallace finished two car lengths ahead of Elliott's Ford before a wildly-cheering crowd estimated at 70,000. Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt and Geoff Bodine followed a bit further back in Chevrolets. Taking positions 6 and 7 and completing all 200 laps were Ken Schrader and Phil Parsons. Then came Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Mike Alexander, the latter a substitute for injured Bobby Allison.
Davey Allison, hoping to win for his dad, Bobby, led 23 laps early in the chase then had to retire his Ford because of an engine problem.
"I want to dedicate this victory to Bobby Allison, " Wallace said after climbing from his car. "I wish he could be here with us." Wallace later divulged plans to fly a group of drivers to Allentown, Pa., where the elder Allison had been hospitalized since suffering life-threatening injuries in a violent crash in the Miller 500 on June 19 at Pocono Raceway.
"We're going to take my private plane up there to Pennsylvania and hope that in seeing us it will be good therapy for Bobby, " said Wallace.
Runnerup Elliott praised Wallace and his team.
"Rusty and his boys are the guys to beat right now, " Elliott said. "They're on a streak."
In five races dating to the Coca-Cola 600 on May 29 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Wallace had two victories, a second and two third-place showings. The spree enabled the driver of the Blue Max team to forge a 130-point lead over defending Cup champion Earnhardt, then in second place. Before the 600 Wallace was sixth in the standings, 122 points behind Earnhardt.
Wallace's No. 27 machine emerged as the class of the field a fifth of the way into the race when he took the lead on Lap 46 and held it for 40 laps. After pitting, he took command again on Lap 92 and led 37 laps, surging to a runaway advantage of 10 seconds. Then, the Pontiac sputtered and slowed in Turn 2, out of fuel.
Wallace had to coast all the way back around to his pit, and by the time the car was refueled and back on the track he was a lap down to Labonte and the other leaders. When they pitted, Wallace was able to get back on the tail end of the lead lap. He made up the remaining distance when the yellow flag showed for Dale Jarrett's spin in Turn 4 on Lap 156. Wallace shot back into the lead on Lap 172 shortly after the restart from the fourth and final caution period.
Elliott, after being caught in traffic, moved to second place on Lap 176 in the Ford he had driven to a track qualifying record of 172.687 the day before, but found himself almost two seconds behind. By Lap 190 Elliott had cut the lead to three car lengths, but he could get no closer, and Wallace effectively blocked his rival's only effort to pass, which came off Turn 4 on the final lap.
"Getting past the slow cars after the final yellow flag really hurt me, " Elliott said. "After clearing them, I caught up to Rusty with not much problem. Then it seemed my car started to want to start pushing out (understeering) in the corners. I think the air coming over the top of his car was unsettling mine."
Crew chief Barry Dodson offered a unique - but plausible - explanation for Wallace's car running out of fuel, which could have been a pivotal goof.
"It probably ran out because the car was handling so well, " said Dodson. "The car was sticking so good Rusty was able to get back on the throttle quicker coming off the corners, and this might have messed up our calculations."
Wallace nodded agreement. "The car was so superior. ... Then we missed figuring the fuel by a lap, and it could have cost us dearly. But none of us gave up and it worked out.
"During those final laps I saw Bill coming strong, then he couldn't gain any further. I think what happened is that I got such a big lead he had to drive so hard to catch me that it wore his edge off a little bit.
"It feels good to finally win one on a superspeedway. But I've led these big races innumerous times - forever and ever and ever - so it really feels like we won on them before."
Wallace didnt hold on to the lead for the driving title in 88. Elliott came on to win the championship by 24 points. However, Rusty claimed the crown in 1989, and remains to be widely rated among NASCARs best champions, fulfilling the duties admirably.
He left the Blue Max team of Raymond Beadle in 1991 to join Roger Penske and remained with the owner of Michigan International Speedway until retiring in 2005.
Now an analyst on racing telecasts for ESPN and ABC, Rusty ended his career with 55 victories, eighth on the all-time list.
Elected in May for induction into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame in Charlotte, an excited Wallace looked back over his colorful career. In doing so, he counted that long-ago triple-dip triumph in the picturesque Irish Hills high among his favorites.