This season, SB Nation's weekly series of interviews has brought you 12 questions with a variety of current drivers. This week, we take a step back in the past. Rusty Wallace had a Hall of Fame-caliber career, winning the 1989 Cup title and 55 career races. He made the Chase in his final season, 2005, before becoming a broadcaster for ESPN. Here's how he answered our 12 questions:
What's the best race you ever drove?
RW: The most incredible one I think I can remember is when I won the race at Michigan when the track had just been repaved (in 1994). The track was tearing up real bad. Penske and everybody was out there in the middle of the night watering the track trying to cool it off.
I led the race all day long, but I start running out of fuel and I come down pit road. Caution comes out the same time I hit pit road. So I relined up in 12th position and I'm tore up, upset, because I was leading and now I'm 12th.
We restarted with 12 or 15 laps to go, I passed a car almost every single lap and in the middle of Turn 3 and 4 coming to the checkered flag, I caught Dale Earnhardt Sr., drove underneath him, passed him and went on to win the race. He finished second.
It was a dramatic race. Track's tearing up, we're driving across the ruts, asphalt's flying everywhere, I'm upset. And when I had come down pit road, Buddy Parrott takes a can of ether to restart the motor. And when the engine fired, I took off and his belt got caught on the hood hinge. I drug him down pit road, he fell off the car and I went on to win the race.
Who is the most talented driver in NASCAR?
RW: Oh, gosh. You know, there's three people I want to say: Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. But there's so many different ways to break that down. I just love how Jimmie Johnson is polished on and off the racetrack. He's the all-around best because he's great for his sponsors, he's great to his fans, he's great to the media and he's such a friggin' thinker when it comes to being a driver. He's real focused, you know?
I guess for the brute, all-out Hail Mary, it's Kyle Busch. And Tony Stewart sticks in my mind because he's just an all-around racer. I gave you three there for three different reasons.
From your experience, when is the best time for a fan to get a driver autograph?
RW: Well, organized events are best, but also pit road as they're walking out for qualifying, because there's a lot of downtime as you walk out the pit gate. But the driver really needs to walk down the pit road as he's signing. He can't just stop, because everybody will gather up and then you can't move, and nobody else will get an autograph.
I always would try to walk, but always try to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them – every autograph I gave. I never would be head down and just scribble, scribble, scribble and walk away. So keep walking, but look everybody in the eye and acknowledge them, and if you've got a couple seconds to tell somebody, ‘Thank you,' do that.
What was your least-favorite track on the circuit?
RW: I never liked to go to Talladega because I felt like I could never control my destiny there. I felt like if I had a great car, there was a chance I was going to get in a wreck and I had no idea what was coming. I was just cruising along and all of the sudden, wham! And it would just wipe me out.
And then there's tracks that every time I went to, I never ran good. One of them was Darlington. I liked the track, I liked the people, but I just couldn't get my shit together there.
If you were in charge of NASCAR, what would you change?
RW: I think there's just way too many rules. We've got ourselves a lot of rules. I just wish some of them would get relaxed a little bit. I understand that's part of it, but my own personal opinion is to figure out a way to not have such a tight box and have so many rules. That's one thing I'd start working on.
What's something fans may not know or understand about you?
RW: I would say I'm passionate about the sport. I really, really care about everything in the sport. I'm a fast mover, I'm a fast talker, I'm a people person. And throughout my career, people have mistaken all that fast stuff and short answers for being cocky. And I'm not cocky at all. I was confident in what I was doing. But I love the sport. People need to understand when I say something, I'm very opinionated about it because I care so much about this sport.
If a rookie came to you and asked one driver he should learn from and one he shouldn't, who would you say?
RW: (laughs) Now you know I can't answer the second part of that question! I would say right now, if I want to learn something, the guy I would definitely go to is Tony Stewart. Here's the deal: Tony understands where young racers come from. If he's got time, Tony could put his arm around you and say, 'OK, here's what I would do and here's what I wouldn't do and this is what you should be wary of.'
Unfortunately, I can't say who you shouldn't learn from. In my field, that wouldn't work!
What driver do you most admire outside of NASCAR?
RW: I always admired Rick Mears. I admired him like crazy, because I loved how he was always a real gracious guy. He had a huge right foot – he was always on the pole, he was always winning everything, he understood every aspect of his car. He was just getting it done. But I watched him get beat up by people verbally – people just running their mouths – and he would just take it, gracefully. He was the all-around guy. He was just such a gracious person; and he still is. That's the reason Penske has got him over there as a consultant to all his drivers. That's the value he has to racing.
All year long, I've asked drivers how long they would like their careers to last. What was your decision to retire like?
RW: The reason I stopped is because I was just burnt out from being on the road so much. I was just tired of living in a motorcoach all the time. And I said, 'The heck with it.'
But the day I got out of that car, I said, 'Boy, I made a mistake.' My last year was one of my best years. I remember when the Chase started, I was third in the points. And I had a great year, had a lot of great runs. So when I got out of the car at the end of the year, people said, 'What in the world did you stop for?'
I said, 'Well, I have my TV career in front of me, so I want to do that.' But I woke up every day going, 'Oh...'
I still miss driving. But it was not the wrong decision to stop. I still had my health – one of my best friends, Earnhardt, had lost his life and I questioned how much longer I need to stay doing this – and I wanted to try to spend more time with the family and get (son) Stephen's career going.
Everybody has an agenda, and mine was that I wanted to go out on top. And I had a nice program put together with ESPN, so I did that. If I wouldn't have had my ESPN thing, I would have kept driving.
What was the first thing you'd do when you got home from those long race weekends?
RW: I'd walk through the door and I'd just put my pajamas on. Something soft I could just relax in. I'd sit up in my big ol' chair in the living room and turn the TV on and talk to my wife and I'd drink a glass of wine. That's what I would do.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
RW: Oh man. OK... (thinks for a minute). Damn. I'm wanting to say my own son. I'm wanting to say my own son! I mean, I hope that! I'm trying to think out of the box here – you asked me an out of the box question, right? (laughs) So I'm wanting to say my own son.
Were there any race-day routines you had to stick to when you drove?
RW: Mostly it was before the race day – the night before, my biggest thing was just getting to bed early. I mean, you can talk about as far as getting prepared for the race on race day, but for me, it was just getting to bed early. If I got to bed early and had a lot of sleep, then I was fine. I was ready to go. I didn't have to have certain foods or certain drinks or certain energy this or that, I just went to bed.
Is it more important to be known as a great driver or a great person?
RW: Great person. Well, you'd like both. There's a lot of great people who can't drive worth you-know-what. They're great people but they just struggle driving. So actually, you've got to have both.