Going into what will be his final NASCAR Nextel Cup season, Rusty Wallace believes that his final ace card in what has been a long and distinguished career could be crew-chief Larry Carter.

It took only eight races for Carter to lead Wallace's Miller Lite Dodge effort back to the winner's circle last April at the Martinsville Speedway. Even though it would be the lone victory for Wallace, Carter and crew, the entire #2 Penske Racing South team is convinced that the 2004 campaign established the groundwork for more expected success during the 2005 Nextel Cup season.

"It was an exciting season for us in 2004 and it was definitely a learning year for me as Rusty's crew chief and for all of us getting the team chemistry flowing," said Carter, whose win last April at Martinsville led to his first Victory Lane visit after 15 years in NASCAR racing's highest level of competition.

"We all really got to know and understand each other really well last year and I think we enjoy a level of communication that many teams don't have even after working together for several years. I'm convinced that we've laid the foundation to come back and maybe even surprise people with our team's strength in 2005.

"Rusty is one of the greatest drivers to ever compete in our sport and it's been such a pleasure working with him and all the guys on our team," said Carter, a 42-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina native. "We have become super teammates during the 2004 season and our respect for each other couldn't be any greater. And to make the situation even better is the fact that we're all good friends off the track and really enjoy being around each other.

"Rusty announced last August that the 2005 season will be his last as a driver and we're determined to help him go out in style and in a blaze of glory," said Carter, a 1985 graduate of North Carolina State University. "We were able to get him back in winner's circle last year and get the team's competitiveness up week in and week out. We were a great deal stronger as a team than our finish in the points showed. We're convinced that we can win races and be a big threat in the points during the 2005 season.

"Like I've told all the members of our team, we just have to keep headed in the right direction and keep on working as hard as we can. To be successful out there today, you have to be relentless. Everybody on our team, from Rusty on down, has the attitude that the most important race of the year is the very next one on the schedule. With that kind of continued dedication, you can understand that we all have great expectations about what the 2005 season holds."

Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR premier series champion and a 55-race winner after the April Martinsville win, has nothing but praise for Carter's team leadership.

"Larry Carter has shown that he is among the very best crew chiefs in the business and I am so proud to have him as the leader of our team," said Wallace, who snapped a personal record 105-race winless streak with the popular Martinsville return to Victory Lane.

"Larry brought to the team the type of leadership we needed and really helped to put our team back on the map.

"During the last few years, we had all kinds of problems and quite honestly, it wasn't a very fun work environment to be in," said Wallace. "Our good pit stops had gotten so sporadic that I actually told some folks that I didn't know what to expect next. It certainly wasn't a good feeling to be racing your guts out and not have the consistency in the pits that we needed.

"I told a lot of people during the 2004 season that Larry reminded me so much of Buddy Parrott, our crew chief back during the early 90s who led our team to a ton of success. Larry has the same leadership qualities as Buddy did back then and those two guys seem to even have the exact same demeanour in almost every way I can think of. They're big guys with a big heart. Larry can walk into a room and his sheer presence just demands your respect.

"Larry came in at the first of the season and promised me that he'd get the pit crew problem fixed and he did just that," Wallace continued. "He practically started from scratch and rebuilt our over-the-wall gang. About a quarter of the way through the season, he had his knew line-up out there and things really started clicking. By the end of the year, we had a level of consistency we'd been missing forever it seemed. The guys were lightning fast and I'd be willing to bet they were among the top-five fastest week in and week out.

"Many of the team members actually came to me during the season and told me how much they enjoyed working for Larry. They said that he had come in there and turned it around to the point that they really loved their jobs and that it was fun again. They loved working with him and wanted to work even harder in order to get the team back on top again. That speaks volumes when you have so many unsolicited from-the-heart comments like that.

"At the end of the season, I think we had a much better team than you could tell from our record," Wallace offered. "We finished 16th in the points, but I honestly thought we had improved to be a top-10 calibre team once again. We did get the one win and some top fives and top 10s. But the fact is that we showed so much more potential than that.

"Our team was back to being a potential winner almost every time they lined us up and threw the green flag. At the end of the year, we just didn't have all the big numbers to show how strong we had been.

"The big thing is that we had all the right personnel in there and everyone is clicking together so well. Larry is such a good leader and when you throw such talented guys as our car chief Jeff Thousand, our shock guy Tom Hoke and our engineer Derek Stamets, along with all the other super guys we have working with us now, it really is an exciting time for our #2 Miller Lite Dodge team and it's gonna' get even better, we all feel.

"We won that race at Martinsville last April and along with it came one of those big old grandfather clocks that they give the winners," said Wallace. "It was Larry's first career win as a crew chief, so Patti and I decided to surprise him by delivering it over to his house as a gift the night after the race. The way that I look at it is that the 2005 season offers us a ton of opportunities to win more races. With Larry up there running the ship, he's gonna' have a bunch of wins under his belt before I hang up my helmet for good at the end of the season."

Carter came to Penske Racing South from BACE Motorsports, where he served as crew chief for rookie driver Tony Raines during the 2003 NASCAR season. The jovial Carter was active in Motorsports at an early age, working part-time for a local dirt track team while in junior high school.

After receiving his college degree at NCSU, Carter worked for a Raleigh government agency for several years and worked part-time for his uncle Travis Carter, a fixture in NASCAR racing for decades. He became a full-time racer in 1990 and first served as a crew chief for the elder Carter's effort in 1994.

"Travis was so instrumental in my career and he's due a lot of credit for me getting an opportunity to get to this point in my career," said Carter. "I am really looking forward to the 2005 season and hope to help add another chapter to Rusty's successful career. One thing's for sure if you know me and that's the fact that we'll have a lot of fun along the way, I can guarantee you that."