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Rusty's last bash

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – It's OK to cry, Russell William Wallace.

You, the guy who has been known for more than a quarter century of stock car racing simply as Rusty, don't have to artificially display the tough, macho bravado that has marked your career. You don't have to keep up the pretense of being nothing less than a true man's man.

When you climb out of your car Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway for the final time, no one will think any less of you if you look around, start to smile, suddenly get all choked up ... and then just let the tears flow freely.

After all, Bristol has been just about everything to you in your career, both on and off the race track. You won your first Nextel Cup race here. You survived one of your worst crashes here. You lead all active drivers with nine career wins and seven poles here.

As younger brother Kenny Wallace remarks, "This is the house that Rusty built, along with Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip – but Rusty built it."

RUSTY'S BRISTOL HIGHLIGHTS
1. April 6, 1986 – First career NASCAR Winston Cup victory.

2. August 26, 1988 – Suffers one of the most horrendous crashes of his career, yet manages to leave the hospital the next day to start the race that evening, eventually yielding driving chores to Larry Pearson.

3. April 9, 1989 – Wins third of six races that season en route to earning his first – and currently only – Cup championship.

4. April 14, 1991 – Wins from the pole in only his sixth start for his new team, Penske Racing South.

5. April 4, 1993 – Wins from the pole and dedicates the race to defending Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki, who was killed two days earlier in a plane crash while attempting to land near Bristol. Wallace also performs Kulwicki's trademark backward "Polish Victory Lap" in his late friend's honor.

6. April 26, 1995 – Early on in the race, is punted into the wall by Dale Earnhardt. Returns to the track 46 laps later and eventually retaliates by cussing out Earnhardt afterward and then throwing and hitting the Intimidator with a plastic water bottle.

7. August 24, 1996 – Collects his sixth career Bristol win, this time wearing a neon yellow firesuit for what Wallace describes as the first, last and only time he'll ever wear such a get-up.

8. April 13, 1997 – Participates in the first of several "love tap" episodes with Jeff Gordon. Wallace appears assured of victory with just a quarter-lap remaining, only to have Gordon hit him in the rear and motor past to victory.

9. April 11, 1999 – Leads 425 of 500 laps en route to victory.

10. April 26, 2000 – Earns his 50th career Cup win.

11. August 26, 2000 – Earns his ninth and most recent BMS win.

12. August 24, 2002 – Is again bested by Gordon, who again uses a bump-and-run tactic to knock Wallace out of the lead and go on to victory in much the same fashion as he did in 1997.

13. March 28, 2004 – Earns his seventh career Bristol runner-up finish.
Off the race track, you own five car dealerships virtually right around the corner. You love the area so much that you built a mountaintop getaway a quick 15-minute helicopter ride away. While you admittedly are tired of packing your suitcase every week, knowing you're heading to Bristol makes the usually mundane task a bit more pleasant and palatable.

"There's no other place like Bristol for me," Rusty Wallace readily admits. "Hell, it's easy to get all jacked up every single time we go there. It's my favorite track and I've never denied it. As a matter of fact, I've always gone out of my way to make it known how much I love this place."

In the case of Saturday night's race, your last at the place you love, it truly would be politically correct to shed a tear or two, showing everyone how much Bristol truly means to you.

As you get older – you just turned 49 last week – there's no shame in admitting you've softened a bit. But no, we can forget about you showing even a hint of weakness or vulnerability. You've got to be the tough guy, the Edward G. Robinson of Cup racing.

"I think when he finally realizes that was his last points race at Bristol – and it might be on his helicopter ride back home afterward – he might get misty-eyed," Kenny Wallace said of his older brother. "But I don't think you're going to see a whole lot of sentimental stuff right here because that's the way he is."

When it comes to driving around the fabled and tough high-banked bullring, you simply are dominant, Rusty. Sure, your nine wins are the stuff of legend. But they only scratch the surface. Just as impressive is that in nearly half of your career starts at BMS – 21 out of 43 – you have finished in the top five, including seven runner-up showings.

Nobody today – not Jeff Gordon (five wins), Kurt Busch (four wins), Mark Martin (two wins), Bill Elliott (one win) or Dale Earnhardt Jr. (one win) – comes close to the standard of excellence you've set at Bristol.

Only the retired Darrell Waltrip ranks above you in overall career wins (12) at the little short track with the Talladega complex, and you'll join DW in retirement bliss after this season.

You won't be able to catch Waltrip or surpass his mark, but a win in Saturday's Sharpie 500 would allow you to step out of the pack for second-winningest driver ever at BMS, a mark you currently share with Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt.

And I'm betting you still have one win left in you.

Not only would it be your first win of the season, it would help solidify your place in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, giving you and your team a huge boost of confidence and momentum in your effort to potentially win that second career Cup championship that has eluded you since you won the first back in 1989.

"Rusty wants to go out on the top of his game," Kenny Wallace said. "But I have mixed emotions. It's sad to see him go, but I'm also so incredibly proud of him.

"He's finally setting a standard that all athletes should have done 10 years ago – whether it was Wayne Gretzky, Ozzie Smith, Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt or Richard Petty – he's quitting when he's on top. Rusty very seldom makes bad decisions. He's made good decisions throughout his career, and that's why he's at where he's at. He's doing it right."

Given the struggles you had the last two seasons – finishing 14th in points in 2003 and 16th in 2004 – a lot of people felt you were washed up, that you should call it quits.

But no, damn it, you had to be a stubborn old cuss from Missouri. Instead of doing the easy thing by throwing in the towel, you had to live up to your home state's "show me" motto by reminding everybody that you were Rusty Wallace, that you weren't going to settle for going out on a low note; nothing less than going out on a high note was acceptable.

"I'm sure Rusty wanted one more chance, just like anybody else would, and for that I think it's pretty incredible," Kenny Wallace said.

So go ahead and pull out your hanky as you dry the wetness from your eyes that's sure to be there after you climb out of the car for the last time. Don't look away from the cameras, lest they catch the redness in your eyes.

Show everybody you're human, you're caring, that you have a soft side. You've earned and deserve a good cry, to let all the emotion and significance that's pent up inside of you out.

And don't be surprised if many of the 160,000 fans in the stands join in to shed more than a few tears of both sadness and joy themselves, not just for all that this Taj Mahal of concrete and asphalt has meant to you, but also for all the excitement, enjoyment and memories you'll leave us with.

Yes, this is Bristol, and after Saturday, you'll never pass this way again.

Go ahead, let it all out, Rusty. Blubber like a baby. You've earned the right.

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