Rusty Wallace remembers well his last visit to the 1.017 North Carolina Speedway. After all the heartbreak and frustration the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup season has dished out, his performance in February's race on the Rockingham track has been hard to forget.

"It was a race that we dominated in and still couldn't pull it off," Wallace said of the February 23 Subway 400 on the 1.017-mile track. "We had a real rocket ship from the drop of the green flag and led the most laps. I guess you could say that we won two-thirds of the race, but came up short in the final third. We had a car definitely capable of winning at Rockingham back in February, but we just couldn't close the deal."

Wallace started eighth in the February Rockingham race, which was his 600th career start in NASCAR Winston Cup competition. He showed the strength of his new Miller Lite Dodge Intrepid almost immediately as he was up to fifth after 10 laps, into third on Lap 23, to second the next lap and into the lead for the first time of the day on Lap 27.

That would be the first of four occasions that Wallace would be on the point during the race. He had the lead and a 2.5-second advantage over second-place Ricky Craven on Lap 75 and radioed, "I'm gonna' throttle back here a little while and save the thing." At the time - even while "throttled back" - Wallace was circling the track almost two-tenths of a second faster than any other competitor.

Wallace led at the halfway point and was leading until Lap 220, when a loose handling condition began to take its toll. He fell back as far as ninth in the running order, before staging a comeback that got him back up to sixth before the laps ran out.

"I was a little let down to have had a car that good and not have been able to pull off the win," said Wallace, who leads all active drivers at Rockingham with five career wins. "But I think we learned a ton from the first race that we can apply this time around - at least I sure hope so.

"In the first race there this year, that thing was a bullet. It was flying. It was handling perfect, and the motor ran great all day long," Wallace recalled. "About three-quarters through the race, I could see the track turning black. I had the thing turning good, and it got too free. I could hardly touch the throttle. We made adjustments on a couple of pit stops. It tightened it up, but it lost the front end. I couldn't fix both things. It was a good evaluation for the first time in a Dodge on a downforce track. It had a lot of power and handled good. It was both disappointing and encouraging. It was disappointing we ran like that, but didn't win. But it was so encouraging we ran so strong in only our second race in the Dodge. There were times I'd look in the mirror and I couldn't even see the second-place car. As the day went on and the track got rubbered up, I could see it changing.

"Like I said, I think we came away from the February race with a pretty good knowledge of what it'll take to get the job done this time around," said Wallace. "I know that Jeffrey (Jeff Thousand, car chief and chassis specialist) took a whole book full of notes there in the last race, so we should have a ton of stuff to work with."

And if notes and preparation aren't enough to get Wallace back into Victory Lane at Rockingham this weekend, what about a little nostalgic touch that has certainly brought great fortune in the past?

As part of Penske Racing's 50th win commemoration this weekend at Rockingham, Wallace's Miller Lite Dodge will carry the familiar and popular black and gold colours that Wallace used in recording 30 of his 54 career wins (total of 38 at Penske Racing) and in three of his five Rockingham victories.

"We certainly had a lot of success with that black and gold car and the fans just loved it," said Wallace. "Many of them remember the 10-win season in '93 and the eight-win year we had in '94. We won three of the four races held at Rockingham during those two seasons with these colours and we're hoping they'll be saying 'black is back' come Sunday afternoon when they throw the chequered flag."

 

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