The actual vehicle sits in the shop, a gift from team owner Roger Penske, in almost the same condition as it was when it exited Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway on the afternoon Rusty Wallace won for the 50th time in NASCAR's top division. The engine was torn down, cleaned up, and put back together. The shocks and springs are the same as they were on that race day more than a decade ago. There's even a piece of chewing gum still taped to the dashboard.
"It's in perfect shape," Wallace said. "We fired it up the other day. It sounds like a million dollars."
And Saturday night, it -- or at least its blue and white color scheme -- returns to life, this time driven by Wallace's successor in Penske Racing's flagship No. 2 car. In a tribute to the retired driver's upcoming enshrinement in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Brad Keselowski will pilot a vehicle resembling the one from spring 2000 in which Wallace won his 50th race in what is now the Sprint Cup division. While intended as a commemorative gesture, the special paint scheme also emphasizes the link between Penske drivers past and present, two Bristol aces in No. 2 cars who aren't too shy about expressing their aggression on the race track or their feelings off it.
It starts with the car number and the Bristol victories -- nine for Wallace (seven of them coming in that famous Blue Deuce), two for Keselowski. It extends to a level of outspokenness that's at times gotten them in trouble with their contemporaries, or drawn NASCAR's attention for the wrong reasons. They seem kindred souls separated by a generation, and that connection never feels stronger than at the big concrete half-mile where both men have experienced so much success.
"He's doing it his way. It's just that his way is very similar to my way," Wallace said of Keselowski. "... But I'm really happy with what he's doing. He's carrying the legacy, he really is. I'm glad he's doing it his way, and he's doing a wonderful job of it. I hate it when people say, 'Rusty started it, and now Brad's carrying it on.' Brad's a fantastic driver, and he's doing it his way. He's now, he's new age. I wasn't. I was kind of rough and tumble, and old-school, and that's the way I was brought up, and that's all I knew. It's a whole different way he's doing it, and it's fun to watch."
It all starts on the race track. Penske vice president Walt Czarnecki said the organization has probably enjoyed more success at Bristol than at any other facility except Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the team has won open-wheel racing's premier event 15 times. Entering Saturday night, Penske has won 10 races at Bristol, including one by former driver Kurt Busch in addition to the totals accumulated by Wallace and Keselowski. The current driver of the No. 2 car doesn't think that's a coincidence -- he believes it goes back to Penske, who he says hires competitors who have the mentality to exceed at a place like NASCAR's foremost stadium track.
"I think Roger likes drivers who run well at these types of tracks, and he hires them. That transfers down throughout the whole company, going back to that mentality ... to where we come to these tracks, whether it was Kurt, Rusty or myself, and we're not intimidated by them. That mentality works its way down through the team ... to where they feel it out of us. They feel that energy that we have, and they up their ante. And so together, team, driver, and the whole company at Penske Racing, I feel like we bring it to the next level when we come here, and I think it starts with Roger," Keselowski said.
"He told me once, and I can't remember it verbatim, but he wanted a driver he had to pull back, not pull forward. And Bristol is a track where if you have a driver you have to pull back, he usually runs pretty darn good here. So I think it's a mentality, and I think it starts with RP."
It was clearly assisted by Wallace, who won more than 200 short-track races before he moved into NASCAR, and developed his famous single-mindedness competing on bullrings around the country. He didn't just want to drive the car -- he wanted to understand it, know everything about it, learn how it reacted and how it could be improved. He picked his own shocks, his own springs, his own weight and aero settings. "Rusty was so detail-oriented about his car and how he worked on his car, and he elevated everyone's game," said former crew chief Robin Pemberton, now NASCAR vice president for competition. "He held you to a higher standard, a higher standard than I've ever been held to in my entire life."
That was never more evident than when the No. 2 team journeyed to Bristol, a track where Wallace never relied solely on his talent. "When we got our deal going here at Bristol ... we knew we were going to sit on the pole or the outside pole, we were going to win the race, lead the most laps," Pemberton said. "You name it, we were going to do it. We did things different than everybody else. We built a brand new car for Bristol every race that we could. We got to the point where we took our Bristol cars to the wind tunnel, even though you're only 140 mph on the straightaway here or whatever. He held us to a higher standard."
Nothing was left to chance. No matter where he stood in points or what kind of year he was having, Wallace could always count on maximizing his endeavor at Bristol. "We really put in such a big effort," Wallace said, "and people would say, 'Why are you doing that? It's a short track. You're just going to get your cars beat up.' Well, we knew that was going to be an opportunity where we could win, and I think that thought process just went all through it."
Wallace was such a fanatic for detail that in Victory Lane at Bristol after recording his 50th career victory, he even requested that all the confetti be cleaned off the car before photographs were taken. "He didn't want all that trash laying all over the car," Pemberton remembered.
Saturday night Keselowski will drive a car with the same paint scheme Wallace used on that day 12 years ago, but the connection between the two drivers doesn't stop there. Every now and then, Keselowski said he's asked to sign some of Wallace's old merchandise. Wallace still signs his autograph as "Rusty Wallace, No. 2," even though he's been out of the car since 2005. He's tried to stop adding the car number, but he can't. "It just comes off my hand," he said. "It's a comfortable feeling."
No worries -- Keselowski says he doesn't mind. "The car is an icon of the sport," he said. "That's so hard to come by. It's like a jersey in a sport you see over and over again. Rusty created that, and it's my job to perpetuate it."
The next step comes Saturday, when Keselowski will attempt to win his third consecutive race at Bristol, and at the same time stake his claim to the top seed in the Chase. After seeing the special paint scheme, Wallace couldn't help himself. "I hope to hell that car wins," he said. If it does, Keselowski better make sure all the confetti is brushed off the vehicle before any photographs are taken.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Rusty Wallace
- Brad Keselowski
- Bristol Motor Speedway