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The Callahan Report: Short tracks, Big dividends: Bristol belongs to Wallace

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
March 22, 2001

Rusty Wallace
NEW ORLEANS, LA: Rusty Wallace's relationship with Bristol International Speedway can be summed up on one word…domination. His hold on victory lane is tighter than fifty beer-drinking NASCAR fans packed in a phone booth.

Rusty Wallace is the defending champion of the Food City 500. He doesn't need to stop for directions on his way to the winner's circle because he also drove there in 1999, 1996, and 1994. His success speaks for itself. Wallace is the odds-on favorite to give Ford its second victory of the 2001 season. Bristol's .533 mile banked track and Wallace go together like red beans and rice.

Wallace had trouble last week at Darlington. He made contact with the competition on two different occasions. He looks forward to a track like Bristol where contact is expected … actually, contact is mandatory.

"We had the run-in with the 20 car there on pit road and it was never the same after that," Wallace said of his scrape with Tony Stewart at Darlington. "That crash there at the end, I'm not sure what exactly happened. The 31(Mike Skinner) got up on the high side and got into my right rear. We had great pit stops all day except one. I thought we'd be better than that here today, but we'll take it and go on to Bristol and look for big things there."

If Wallace has trouble at Bristol, there will be a line of NASCAR Winston Cup's finest drivers waiting to take his place on center stage at the conclusion of the Food City 500 Sunday (1 p.m. (et), FOX Television).

Johnny Benson has been in position for a visit to victory lane several times this season. There would be no better place than Bristol for him to finally pull off his long overdue win. Benson has significant funding behind him, not to mention some of the best "wrench turners" in the business. Benson dazzled his competition a year ago by blowing past the field to finish in second place. He started the race from 33rd spot. If Benson kept his notebook from last year, he could be Wallace's worst nightmare Sunday. He could also give Pontiac its first win of the season.

Steve Park was robbed out of a win last weekend at Darlington. He stayed away from trouble all day and he led the most laps. This is the type of thing that makes a race driver very hungry and determined. Park qualified on the pole at Bristol a year ago. He stayed with the leaders all day and drove to a seventh place finish. He is the bright spot in the Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI) garage. Park has notched one victory this season (Rockingham). Bristol could easily mark his second win. If Park can win at Bristol, he would become the first two time winner of the 2001 season.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon is always a threat at any track, long or short. Bristol is challenging, but there is not a challenge that the three time Winston Cup champion can't handle. Gordon cut his racing teeth on tracks just like Bristol. When he raced in the United States Auto Club (USAC) ranks, Gordon was a terror on tracks like Salem and Winchester. Gordon's past experience on short high banks make him a strong contender this weekend. Gordon started third and finished eighth at Bristol a year ago.

Dale Jarrett is the current Winston Cup points leader. He stole victory from Steve Park last weekend at Darlington when his crew blazed his final pit stop. Jarrett is also a former winner at Bristol. He won the Food City 500 in 1997 and has become somewhat of a short track expert in the past few years. His patience, combined with 'timed aggression' and the guidance of his crew chief (Todd Parrott), make Jarrett a solid contender at Bristol.

A year ago, Jeff Burton would have been picked as a favorite to win at any track on the circuit. This year, Burton is struggling dreadfully. He should be considered a dark-horse candidate for winning the Food City 500. Bristol could be a turning point in the season for the veteran from South Boston, VA. Burton likes the challenges of a short track. He proved he could run with the leaders at Bristol last year by staying in the top ten all day. He will have local support in the stands that may help boost the dark-horse pick to victory lane.

"It hasn't gone according to plan, but it isn't from a lack of effort and it isn't from the fact that we have a poor team," Burton said of his poor performance to date. " It's just that I've made some mistakes. We had a part failure on Sunday and we've just had nothing go our way. I don't know, we hope we're getting it out of the way early."

Drivers attack Bristol differently. Whether they use patience or they are aggressive, one thing is for certain. Bristol will produce heart pounding racing action. It will also produce sparks, dents and a weeks worth of headaches for the sheet metal workers.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.