DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Iowa Speedway designer and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace is returning to the driver’s seat — for an afternoon.
What started as friendly ribbing and good-natured coaxing from team members on pit road late last season resulted in Wallace getting into the Penske Racing’s No. 2 Miller Lite Ford. Wallace, who continues to be an ambassador for Iowa Speedway, will be behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car for the first time since he retired in 2005.
The 1989 premier series champion will help celebrate longtime sponsor Miller Lite’s upcoming 40th birthday by steering the appropriately retro-colored Miller Lite car during Thursday afternoon’s Preseason Thunder test session at Daytona International Speedway.
“It all started at Homestead I was standing between the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) and 2 (Brad Keselowski) cars joking around and those guys were egging me on to get back in a car and when Brad got wind of it, he called me up two weeks later and was serious about it and Roger (Penske) was all for it,” the 57-year-old Wallace told NASCAR.com. “Everyone in the world has been on me to test. ‘Why haven’t you been back in a car?’ This here kind of got me.
“It’s going to be hard not to have a big ol’ smile all day Thursday.”
Not only did 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Keselowski, the current driver of the famous Blue Deuce, pursue the idea of Wallace driving his car, he told NASCAR.com that he couldn’t be prouder to share his seat with Wallace, the driver Keselowski considers largely responsible for the team’s title-worthy presence in the Cup ranks today.
“I thought it was a great opportunity and obviously there’s a lot going on with the retro scheme to tie in,” said Keselowski, who was 5-years old when Wallace hoisted his Cup trophy and in his first full season of NASCAR competition (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series) the year Wallace retired.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Rusty and am thankful for what he’s done. He pretty much put Penske’s NASCAR program on the board. He’s kind of the father of the Miller Lite racing program and it’s a great way for us to reconnect to the roots of our program and pay respect to him as kind of the patriarch of it in a lot of ways.
“For me, it was a no-brainer for him to do it.”
Now as popular a TV analyst on ESPN as he was as a 55-time winner in the Cup ranks during a storied 25-year career, Wallace said he expects the experience to be more than a sentimental adventure around NASCAR’s most famous track. He got permission and blessing from ESPN to make his first laps in NASCAR’s Generation-6 car and sees it as a tangible asset to his work in the broadcast booth too.
“I think it’ll help my TV stuff and I’ll have a more in-depth knowledge of what the car feels like,” Wallace said. “I don’t know of any other analysts that are doing this right now. … I honestly pride myself in the information I give fans on the air.
“This will give me an opportunity to validate a lot of the stuff I say on air.”
Wallace said in preparation for the test he had to undergo all the mandatory medical testing any driver would — from baseline concussion scans to drug testing — and even secure a new NASCAR license. And NASCAR confirmed Wallace has met all its requirements.
“Mike Helton’s pretty pumped up about this, too,” Wallace said of the longtime NASCAR president.
According to Wallace, crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn’t planning on either Keselowski or Wallace doing any drafting practice in this week’s two-day test on the famous high banks, so Wallace will make a series of single-car runs.
How many, no one knows yet.
“I’m going to give the car all I’ve got and I’m going to learn,” Wallace said. “They’re looking for some speed, some comfort. I’m not going there to say, ‘Let’s change this spring, let’s change this shock.’ I’m there to gain a lot of knowledge and have fun with the team. It’s not like I’m going there to aid the team. I’m going to have fun, learn and get back in the seat.”
“Brad will shake it down a couple runs then I’ll get in the car and I just may stay in it the rest of the day,” Wallace said with a laugh.
And that’s fine with Keselowski.
“There’s plenty of testing to do and I told him, I’m not too proud to let you in my car and do some laps, let’s do it,” Keselowski said. “At the end of the day, this is about respect and this is my way of showing respect back to Rusty. He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason and I expect he’ll get up to speed right away.
“I might just go in the grandstands and have a beer and watch.”