RIVERSIDE — It has been a tough but steady climb, and stock car racer Rusty Wallace has finally reached his goal of becoming a competitive NASCAR racer.
It is the world of the Pettys, Allisons, Waltrips, Yarboroughs, Elliotts and Labontes, men who have become legends in the South and other parts of the country where NASCAR races are held.
How does it feel to finally be in such top-notch company?
"I always knew it would be great, but honestly, it has been even better than I had imagined," said Wallace, the 29-year-old Missouri native who has been racing stock cars since he was 16.
"To know that you have a chance to battle on even terms with the top guys is a super feeling."
And battle is just what he will have to do today in the $366,950 Budweiser 400 on Riverside International Raceway's 2.62-mile, nine-turn road circuit.
"In the past when we have come here, it has always been in a car that really wasn't competitive, so all you could do was just hang on and finish as high as you could," Wallace said. "But this year is different and I am positive that things will be a lot different this time."
The major differences he is counting on are a new car that has been specially built for Riverside's road circuit and a veteran crew that has had a good deal of success here in the past.
"I knew the change in teams this year would be good, but I didn't know it would be this good," Wallace said. "Being with the Blue Max crew this year has been like a dream come true."
The Blue Max crew he referred to is the racing operation owned by former drag-race champion Raymond Beadle. Wallace joined up at the start of the season.
"It's a first-class operation with first-class people," he said. "My crew chief Barry Dotson is one of the best there is. So are chassis man Jimmy Maker and engine builder Harold Elliott.
"Everybody has their job to do, and it makes it so much easier. Always before in my three years on the NASCAR circuit, I had one guy who tried to do it all and it just doesn't work.
"This year, we have 11 race cars and the one I'll drive at Riverside is brand new. It can only be used on a road circuit as everything is mounted on the opposite side from our other oval cars.
"Although I have only raced at Riverside four times, I feel that I have driven the track well. But, just to back me up, I've had Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip drive me around the course and let them do all the talking. What they said was pretty much what I had been doing, so I don't think I am too far off."
Rusty proved Friday that his assumption was right when he qualified his Alugard Pontiac at a speed of 115.673 m.p.h.
It put him sixth on the 42-car grid for the 95-lap chase that will be headed by Waltrip, who set a one-lap record of 117.066 m.p.h. It was Waltrip's first pole of the season, but it was the ninth time he has been the fastest qualifier for a Riverside race, most of any driver.
Also ahead of Wallace are Geoff Bodine, who will start alongside Waltrip in the front row, and second-row starters Tim Richmond and Neil Bonnett.
Starting alongside Wallace will be Terry Labonte, who will be gunning for his third straight win in this race.
"I've got a good starting spot today," Wallace said, "and a good crew and a good car. And, for here, that's a real bonus. The rest is up to me."
Speaking of a bonus, it is a word very much on Wallace's mind in today's race.
"Although we are a new team this year," he said, "we already have won one race at Bristol and we are currently in fifth place in the Winston Cup standings, and if we can do well in the next four races we have a good shot at some Winston bonus money."
The money he was referring to was $500,000 that will be distributed to the top drivers in the series after the first half of the season, marked by the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on July 4.
"It may be hard to catch (point leader Dale) Earnhardt or Waltrip," Wallace said. "But if we can do well today and in the rest of the races leading up to July 4, we could finish as high as third, which would be worth $75,000.
"Starting today's race we are only a few points behind Bobby Allison (third) and Bill Elliott (fourth), but Terry Labonte is only a few behind us, so we have to go all out."