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Friday, May 21, 2004
Updated: May 22, 5:20 PM ET
One race changed Wallace's life

By Jerry Bonkowski
Special to ESPN.com

Saturday's Nextel All-Star Challenge marks the 15th anniversary of one of Rusty Wallace's most memorable NASCAR victories -- one that contains both good and bad memories.

The good part of it was Wallace won The Winston at what then was called Charlotte Motor Speedway (now Lowe's Motor Speedway), nudging Darrell Waltrip out of the way on the second-to-last lap, sending Waltrip spinning -- and probably uttering a few choice words other than his trademark "boogity, boogity, boogity" line -- allowing Wallace to take the checkered flag.

"It was an ugly, ugly win," Waltrip said of Wallace's "pass." "I hope he chokes on the $200,000, that's all I can tell him. He knocked the hell out of me."

Wallace tried to take things in stride, responding with an aw shucks comeback to Waltrip's charge.

"We just ran out of room," Wallace said. "I got under him and we touched. I backed out of the throttle and he spun. I didn't intentionally hit him."

But that little imbroglio also turned ugly immediately after the race as Waltrip unleashed a string of invectives that struck to the core of Wallace.

"A lot of guys let greed overcome speed, and that's what happened today," Waltrip said after the race. "I got spun out. A guy drove down underneath me and drove up into me and spun me out. It was blatant. I had him pretty well covered. I just didn't want to make a mistake, but I guess I made one, letting him get up there."

Yet, that one incident proved to be one of the most significant turning points in Wallace's stock car racing career. He would use the momentum generated in that confrontation with Waltrip to propel him toward the Winston Cup championship that season, the only title he has ever won in his Cup career. Wallace would win six races, have seven other top-five, another seven top-10 finishes and four poles in 29 starts.

"It was the turning point of my career -- and Darrell's, too," Wallace said. "I don't think there has ever been in the history of our sport a situation where in a split second the roles are reversed like that -- totally reversed. Darrell became the hero there in that race and I became the villain.

"D.W. didn't have the greatest fan appeal back then -- he was a driver who the fans either loved or hated -- it was just that simple. Well, that day he became the good guy and that image lasted with him all the way until he hung the helmet up. He always got cheered from that day forward."

But at the same time, it also had both positive and negative repercussions on Wallace's career, especially as he powered forward toward the championship that season.

"Man, it really did fireworks for my career," Wallace said. "I was still a young guy on the way up. I'd finished second to (Bill) Elliott in the points in 1988 and hadn't really stirred up any big buzz until that day. I was just a pretty non-controversial guy who'd come from the short tracks and was on his way up the ladder in the big league. Not only did I become a marked man and our teams get in fights and all, it carried over into my personal life, too."

That, it most certainly did. For most of the remainder of the 1989 season, and even stretching into the 1990 campaign, Wallace was a marked man both on and off the racetrack. While his competitors were a bit more reserved in their approaches to Wallace, some rabid and definitely non-Wallace fans went so far as to even threaten his life and the life of his family.

"We got threats -- it was some serious stuff that came down after that one. I'll never forget having my daughter Katie, who was only about five years old at the time, ask me, 'Daddy, why are there policemen with guns sitting outside our front door?' We actually had to have bodyguards and extra security around the clock for me and my family. It was just that heavy of a scene after that race. It definitely put my name and face on the map and I got booed for years to come after that one. I'm just so grateful that I was finally able to get back in the good graces with all the fans and have them all know that I really am a good guy."

Unfortunately, although he's had four other top-five and four additional top-10 finishes in the event, Wallace has never been able to repeat his one-time win in 17 career appearances in The Winston, now the Nextel All-Star Challenge, ever since. He came close again in 1996, finishing runner-up, but he's never been able to repeat the magic that led to his No. 1 finish in 1989.

He's also had some low lights along the way, such as last season, when for only the second time in 17 starts, did he fail to qualify for the final segments of the race, marking as low a low for him as the high he experienced on that late spring day in 1989. But no matter what, he still has -- and never will forget -- the memories from that special day in Charlotte 15 years ago.

"I'll never forget the aftermath of that race, with Darrell telling me to choke on the 200 grand, Todd Parrott and some of my team punching it out with Darrell's team on pit road and getting suspended and all hell just about breaking out," Wallace said. "It was something they talked about for years to come and (they) even made a song about that day. That whole season was so special for me and that team. We won the big all-star race at Charlotte and went on to win the championship that same year.

"Like I said, that day and that race was a very big part of the sport's history I think. I know how huge it was as far as the big picture goes for me; that's for sure."

Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.