Not too many years ago Rusty Wallace was dubbed Rubberhead. A hard charger from the time he joined the NASCAR circuit full-time in 1984, Wallace was also becoming known as a hard crasher. Nothing—no man, no car, no track, no crash—would stop him from trying to win a race. "Wallace can't stand to have anyone beat him," said Dale Jarrett in 1989. "He'll do anything to prevent it."
Wallace earned his nickname after a 1988 practice session in which he blew a tire and his car barrel-rolled six times down the front straight at Bristol (Tenn.) International Raceway. When rescue workers reached the car, Wallace was unconscious and not breathing. After the doctor on the scene straightened Wallace's neck to open his airway, Wallace revived, and he drove in the race the next day. That year he finished second in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings, trailing the winner, Bill Elliott, by a mere 24 points.
The following year Wallace won the cup, but he was plagued by mechanical troubles the next three years. He's back on track again this year, with four wins in the first 11 races of the Winston Cup campaign, although his 29th-place finish in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte kept him in second place in the '93 point standings, 129 points behind the leader, Dale Earnhardt, who also won Sunday's race.
If Wallace is back in form, so is Rubberhead, who has survived two horrific crashes in the span of 11 weeks. First came the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 14. While running sixth on Lap 168 of the 200-lap race, Wallace was cruising down the backstretch at 190 mph when Derrick Cope and Michael Waltrip tangled in front of him. Waltrip tapped the rear of Wallace's car and sent it careering into the infield grass, where it became airborne and flew at least 20 feet high before landing, only to flip a dozen times. "I had a real good grip on the steering wheel when it started rolling," says Wallace. "I was completely awake when they cut the roof off the car."
Wallace escaped with a cut on his chin and won four of his next seven starts to take the Winston Cup lead. In Talladega, Ala., on May 2 he was running third, this time a mere 100 yards short of the checkered flag, when Earnhardt, Wallace's best friend on the NASCAR circuit, tried to slingshot past him on the inside of the track. As Wallace dived low to prevent Earnhardt from passing. Earnhardt slammed into the back of Wallace's car, flipping it onto its nose and sending it toward the infield, where it flipped 16 times. "After the second roll, I lost it," says Wallace. "I couldn't hold on to the wheel anymore."
When Earnhardt and an army of rescue workers rushed to the wreck, they found Wallace barely conscious and unaware that he and his car had sailed across the finish line to claim sixth place (Earnhardt finished fourth). This time, though, Wallace did not walk away. He suffered a moderate concussion, various lumps and bruises, and a broken wrist when his left arm flew out the window and the car rolled over his hand. "Dale said it was his fault, that he should have slowed down," says Wallace. "I said it was my fault, that I shouldn't have tried to block him. Even though I got the total crap knocked out of me, it was just a racing accident. Dale would never try to hurt me. Like me, he's a family man, and we've both got too much to live for."
Wallace didn't miss a race, though at the Save Mart 300, in Sonoma, Calif., he finished a dismal 38th, and Earnhardt, who came in sixth, took over the Winston Cup lead by 20 points—a gap he widened with his win on Sunday. With five months of racing left, the two friendly rivals will undoubtedly be trading paint for the series title, and even after two frightening crashes, Rubberhead insists he won't case up. "Nope. All this has done is help us build a better, safer race car," says Wallace. "With a little extra padding, of course."