1989 All-Star Race a Defining Moment for Rusty Wallace
And while the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge has recorded 55 victories in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, it's a bit ironic that the triumph which most impacted his career is not counted among them.
That victory came in the 1989 running of the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, an event that turned out to be one of the most memorable in NASCAR history.
In 1989, Wallace was a brash 33-year-old driving for car owner Raymond Beadle and the former short-track ace was just starting to turn heads in NASCAR's premier series.
"I was still a young guy on the way up," Wallace said recently. "I hadn't really stirred up any big buzz."
For several years, Darrell Waltrip had been the man fans loved to hate. He won championships in 1981, 1982 and 1985 and racked up win after win. He started the 1989 season by finally winning the Daytona 500 and appeared poised to make a run at his fourth championship.
When the green flag waved at Charlotte Motor Speedway to start the 1989 NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, Wallace made an early statement that he was the man to beat.
"I had a really fast race car and I was one of the favorites going in," Wallace explained. "In the first segment, I took off and won by a pretty good margin. In the second segment, Waltrip's car took off and my car got real loose. He passed me and went on to win, and I finished second."
Before the third and final segment, Wallace's team uncovered the cause of his car's handling woes during the second segment.
"When we came in to change tires, someone hollered over and said, 'Hey Barry (Dodson, then Wallace's crew chief) you guys had the tires on backwards.' The right rear was on the right front and right front was on the right rear," Wallace said.
With Wallace's tire miscue rectified, the green flag was unfurled to start the final 10-lap trophy dash. "Darrell got a jump on me," Wallace said about the restart. "He got out there and he had a pretty good run for a while, but I started to run him down. I caught him and he was starting to fade, but we were running out of time.
"I started running way out against the wall and hauled it in wide open. Back then you could slide the car a whole lot. You could get a car broadside and not lose it," Wallace added.
The race was nearing its conclusion with Waltrip in the lead. But Wallace would take one final shot heading to the white-flag.
"I finally caught him and he was getting loose. I stuck my nose under his left-rear quarter-panel and it started to push a little bit," Wallace said. "I was like, 'Man don't lift. If you lift, you're screwed.'
"I thought I would slide right up alongside him, get alongside off four, beat him into one and that would be it. I never lifted and that thing started sliding and-bam!-went the quarter-panel, and all hell broke loose."
Wallace hit Waltrip's Tide-sponsored car and sent him sliding through the infield grass. To this day, it's still referred to as the "Tide Slide."
Wallace went on to claim what remains his only victory in the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge, and picked up the $200,000 first-place check. Waltrip ended up seventh.
The fans and crews were not amused.
"The whole damn infield was fighting," Wallace said. In interviews immediately after the race, Waltrip was fuming. "I hope he chokes on that $200,000, that's all I can tell him. He knocked the hell out of me. . I got spun out," he said.
On the way to victory lane, Wallace's crew tangled with Waltrip's team, resulting in a fight that required several security officers and NASCAR officials to break up.
"We had to hide Rusty to get him to and from the press box," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "And we had to send a couple police officers to guard his house that night."
Wallace recalled another tough moment. "I went up to The Speedway Club with 'Humpy' Wheeler and all the people started booing me," he said. It was a preview of things to come. Essentially in a split second, Wallace became the sport's villain while Waltrip became a hero-something for which Wallace takes full credit.
"I tell him that all the time. He knows it, too. At that time he was a villain," Wallace said. "Then 'ol Rusty spins him out-this little cocky kid out of St. Louis. I guess fans thought I beat up on Darrell and they didn't like that."
In Waltrip's eyes it may have been an "ugly win," but it was a defining moment in Wallace's career. "I don't think there has ever been another situation in our sport where in a split second the roles were reversed like that-totally reversed," Wallace said.
Wallace went on to win six races and the 1989 championship. It was a special season and a memorable one for its accomplishments and its career-defining moment.
"That whole season was so special for me and that team," Wallace said. "That day and that race is a very big part of the sport's history. I know how huge it was as far as the big picture goes for me; that's for sure."
It took several years, but Wallace finally gained back the respect and admiration of many fans.
"I'm just so grateful that I was able to get back in the good graces with all the fans," he said. "I just wanted them to all know that I really am a good guy."
Tickets for the NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge start at just $21 and include a pre-race concert by The Black Crowes. To purchase tickets, call the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.