DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rusty Wallace always has been able to talk a good game. Now, he seems intent on turning talk into reality.
Ever since Wallace won the 1989 Winston Cup championship, he has promised to win another one every year. And every year he comes to Daytona International Speedway promising to win the 500.
He has talked so much, in fact, that he has become the antithesis of the boy who cries wolf. He cries not the blues, but of predicted success. And everyone smiles and says, "Rusty's at it again."
They say that because Wallace invariably has trouble at Daytona. For instance, in his past five races here he has finished 27th, 31st, 32nd, 41st, 34th and 16th.
But this week, Wallace, 40, has proclaimed himself a new man at Daytona -- and everywhere else, too.
"I'm so focused," he said, sitting in his motor home next to the Winston Cup garage area. "This is so different the car, the engines, the team. I've never had a feeling this good, not even in the year we won the title."
Yackety, yackety, yak.
"Rusty always could talk," said driver Sterling Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "And now he's got plenty of horses powering his engine. I think this time we have to watch out for Rusty."
Wallace has been fast here from the moment he arrived. "I think I finally have as much horsepower as anyone else," he said, which is quite a change for his Ford, which almost al
ways suffered a power shortage.
"He's been talking since last July about getting ready for this race," driver Jeff Gordon said. "You put enough effort on it and work hard enough, you're going to make some improvements. If we had a drag race, I think he would beat us. His car is really getting through the air. But is it going to handle in the 500?"
So far, Wallace has been backing his claims with performance. He was fourth-fastest in first-day qualifying last Sunday. In the Busch Clash, he started 12th and finished second, appearing to be the only car able to pass anyone. Thursday, in the 125-mile qualifying race, he finished sixth to earn the outside spot on the seventh row for tomorrow's 500.
Still, Dale Jarrett, last year's Daytona 500 winner, did not include Wallace in his list of possible contenders.
"Rusty?" Jarrett said. "Maybe. Certainly he is running better here than he ever has. But the guys I'm watching -- [Dale] Earnhardt, Ernie [Irvan], [Terry] Labonte, Bill Elliott, Gordon -- are all guys who have been up there before."
Wallace goes into tomorrow's 39th Daytona 500 feeling he is a justifiable favorite to win, and he's irked that it seems to have surprised not just Jarrett but a lot of people.
"I don't know why I've been a big surprise," Wallace said. "I've won 46 races and I've been the winningest team in the 1990s, but you don't expect me to run well at Daytona.
"Well, I'm here to change that. I'm confident in our ability and I'm confident in the team and I'm sick and tired of hearing how we can't run at Daytona.
"When you've got a team like I've got, that has had no turnovers, and [crew chief Robin] Pemberton working like he's doing and [engine builder] Mike Ege building the power he's building, it's, 'Shazam!' All of a sudden I can drive again."
Wallace also is tired of questions he sees as out of line.
"People say, 'Hey, Rusty, when are you going to win again?' when I won last week," he said. "Or, 'Hey, Rusty, when are you going to win some races?' when I won six -- the second most of anyone -- last season. Or, 'Hey, Rusty, when are you going to do this or that?' when I've won more races than any sucker out there."
Wallace can exaggerate, but is only slightly off the mark when billing himself as the winningest driver in the 1990s. He has 30 wins; only Earnhardt has more with 31.
"Instead of looking at how many wins and how many laps you lead and how consistent the teams are that are up front, I think all people are looking at is the points," he said. "Just how you sit in the points, instead of looking at how the cars are performing."
And so he told his Penske South Team, "Guys, we've got to buckle down. We're trying hard, but we've got to pull out all the stops. We've got to work on consis- tency and we've got to try to stay as focused as we possibly can. It's not about how much fun you have. We've had all the fun. We've done it all. Now it's time to buckle down, get right, get some points and win another championship."
As good a driver as Wallace is -- and he is regarded as one of the best -- Daytona has been his Waterloo. Six times in 14 starts he has wrecked here, including five straight from 1991 through 1995.
None of it is lost on his co-owner, Roger Penske, who gave a little advice.
"He said, 'Look, man, this is the best car you've had,' " Wallace said. " 'When you go out and draft, don't go out there and get yourself in a hornet's nest. If the situation doesn't look right, get out of the pack and go draft with a different pack.' "
Wallace sighs. So many wrecks are not his fault, he says, but a lack of horsepower. "Because my engines weren't as good as they should have been, I was running back in the pack, where trouble happens."
He has a point. Last Thursday, if he had been running in the middle of the pack, he would have been in the perfect spot to get caught up in a wreck that took out four drivers on Lap 9. That would have been the fate of the old Rusty Wallace.
"But now I've got the horsepower," he said. "There's one thing I learned a long time ago. You've got to be able to draft, you've got to have the horsepower and you've got to be able to handle. You've got to have all three, not just one."
Site: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Time: 12: 15 p.m. tomorrow
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Pole-sitter: Mike Skinner, Susanville, Calif., Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 189.813 mph
1996 winner: Dale Jarrett
Today at Daytona: Gargoyles 300 Busch Grand National race, noon, chs. 13, 9
Pub Date: 2/15/97