DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- He had the best car in the field, his best chance of winning at the track that has caused so much heartbreak and futility over the years.
Yet there was Rusty Wallace, the unofficial hard-luck king of the Daytona 500, explaining how another one slipped away.
"This is probably the most disappointing one," Wallace said, his face still flushed red moments after crawling out of his Ford Taurus. "We just had such a good car. Damn, I can't believe this happened."
It's hard to tell what was more discouraging for Wallace: That his Daytona doldrums continued even though he had the best car on the track, or the way things unraveled on the final laps to continue his 17-race winless streak in NASCAR's Super Bowl.
"He had the fastest car, no question," said Chad Little.
But the fastest car doesn't always win at Daytona International Speedway, where restrictor plate races are as much about guts and guile as they are about cars and drivers. Wallace failed in both areas Sunday, and it cost him dearly.
He went from leading 102 of the first 190 laps to finishing eighth.
"I'm heartbroken about it," Wallace said.
Especially considering the way it all played out. The first problem came with the final caution with 25 laps to go, when the lead pack went to the pits for tires and fuel. Wallace, who was leading, decided to stay on the track for position and because he said he initially didn't think a change of tires would help much.
"If I thought it was the wrong decision, I'd be on suicide watch," said Robin Pemberton, Wallace's crew chief. "I will be, anyway."
By staying out, Wallace gained minimal ground on the lead pack, and specifically, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. After 10 laps, they were on Wallace's bumper, pushing for the lead and looking for any advantage to take control of the race.
Five laps later, Gordon found it -- with a slick move inside to take the lead for the first time since Lap 20. The leaders -- Wallace, Mike Skinner, Gordon and Earnhardt -- were racing by the finish line when Gordon dove close to the apron to pass. Ricky Rudd was coming up from the pit as a passed car, and Wallace had Gordon pinned on the bottom and apparently into Rudd.
But as quickly as Gordon moved low under Wallace, he was even quicker to move back up momentarily to elude Rudd and slip in front of Wallace. The move of the race gave Gordon his second Daytona 500 victory in three years, and left Wallace wondering about strategy.
"I thought I had him blocked off enough, and he just kept going," Wallace said. "I thought he was going to draw right in to the back of Rudd. I had him pinned down there, and I said, `Man, I'm not going to try to wreck a bunch of cars.' So I pulled up and he got me."
Said Gordon: "I came very close to having to lift off the gas. There was a lot of apron there, and I utilized it as much as I could. He moved a little bit and I got up there."
The events that followed capped the day of frustration for Wallace, and simply emphasized the power of his car compared to the rest of the field. When Gordon made the move, Skinner moved on top of Wallace, leaving Wallace in the middle of a three-car line -- something that's deadly in restrictor plate racing.
But instead of immediately falling back to the pack because of a lack of drafting help, Wallace stayed even with Gordon and Skinner for a lap, before falling to fourth. Then his partner, Jeremy Mayfield, blew a right front tire on the next lap and Wallace's chances of making a final push were gone.
"Looking back at it right now, if I'd had a little bit more grip in the tires, I might have been able to hold that bottom line a little bit better," Wallace said. "But the car was still handling good. I wasn't having a problem. I just didn't think anybody could get me, to tell you the truth."
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