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New car will mean bigger learning curve

POSTED: May 20, 2011 11:04 a.m.

After finally seeing some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, last weekend’s 5-Hour Energy 200 at Dover International Speedway was almost a microcosm of Rusty Wallace Racing’s season to date.
There was a lot of promise for the three-car team branded with versions of race sponsor 5-Hour Energy’s colors — which also is the full-time primary sponsor of Steve Wallace’s No. 66 Toyota.
But in the end, what Wallace had to show for the day was mostly dashed hopes and underachieved results for his primary cars — though the numbers, 16th for Steve Wallace and 20th for Michael Annett, definitely don’t paint the whole picture.
However, part-timer David Reutimann’s fifth-place run in only his second start this season for RWR proves everything the owner -- and his drivers -- needs to know about their operation. The potential is definitely there.
“Our cars have been running a lot better, handling better and they’re faster,” Steve Wallace said. “The things we’re doing now have really cleaned our race cars up a bunch and are making them drive a lot better. We’ve changed our cars drastically from the start of the season, because I never could have imaged we’d start as slowly as we have.”
Reutimann stepped into the No. 64 Toyota at Nashville and immediately made things happen, with a fifth-place start that developed into only a 14th-place finish. But Rusty Wallace took at least one valuable lesson out of that.
“David talked about what his car did during that race -- it started out working real well and then it developed a real bad loose condition that we took big swings at, but were never able to correct,” Wallace said. “It confirmed what our other drivers had been feeling and what they’d been saying. Since then we’ve made a lot of changes and really improved that a lot.”
Reutimann’s revelation resulted in a major reconfiguration to RWR’s cars’ front suspension geometry. Even though Steve Wallace made a self-confessed mistake on the race track at Richmond that cost him in the rundown, he and new crew chief Doug Randolph bounced-back at Darlington for their first top-five.
The younger Wallace was racing for a possible top-10 at Dover when a horrific accident coming to the white flag collected him and wrecked his car on the frontstretch. For his part , Annett had spun on the previous green-white-checker attempt that ended a frustrating day of trying to remain in the top 20.
The best news for RWR is that, despite the latest in a series of frustrating outings, Steve Wallace actually moved up one spot in the standings, to ninth, as Trevor Bayne continued to plummet after missing races with an ongoing medical condition. Annett, who earlier this season was in 10th after Nashville, remained in 13th, 33 points out of 10th.
“This 2011 season has gotten off to a much slower start than I ever anticipated,” Rusty Wallace said. “I grossly underestimated how hard it was going to be to get this new car going, but we’ve really gained on it in the last two weeks and that’s the main reason we’re running the third car with David Reutimann, to get that information that we need.”
After running four races with NASCAR’s new Nationwide chassis a year ago, Wallace’s drivers were of the same mind.
Steve Wallace fell as low as 17th in the standings early in the season and has been on a steady upward climb since then, recording seven top-20 finishes. He claims Randolph’s a big part of it.
“I’m going to Iowa with a brand-new, state-of-the-art car and I feel like I can win that race,” Steve Wallace said of the track his father helped design. “Doug’s definitely been the best crew chief I’ve had, as far as how he works with the guys and with his pit road calls especially. We’ve hit it off good with our communication and he’s won races, and [that confidence] has helped our program a ton.
Annett and Steve Wallace are close off the track and both drivers admitted that it helps in the garage. Annett knows there are better days ahead -- there has to be to get back into contention this season. He’s had eight top-20 finishes in 11 starts with a best finish of 13th.
“Disappointing would be the best way to sum-up the season so far -- but we’re only 11 races into it and we’ve got time to turn things around,” Annett said. “Coming into this season, with a new points system and knowing the level of equipment we had and having the right people in place, both Steve and I felt like we had a shot at the championship. We still do.
“We’re starting to see a change, and we’re going to a bunch of tracks coming up into the summer that both Steve and I like a lot, so we’re looking forward to getting the whole organization running a lot better.”
“I’m not happy -- nobody’s happy -- with the way it started off,” Rusty Wallace said. “But I can see a light at the end of the tunnel and feel like it’s getting better. But this new car is so drastically different than anything we’ve ever experienced in the Nationwide Series, that it’s been a huge learning curve for all of us.”

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