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Year in Review: Wallace suffers shift in fortunes

December 19, 2011, Bill Kimm, NASCAR.com

A probable title contender in preseason, Wallace found trouble at every turn

When NASCAR announced the new rule stating drivers had to choose one series in which to compete for the championship, Steve Wallace appeared to be one of the Nationwide drivers who would benefit from the change. In the previous two seasons, Wallace finished in the top 10 in points, and if the current rules were in effect he would have been in the top five.

So when 2011 began, the bar was set pretty high for the No. 66 Rusty Wallace Racing Toyota team, and Wallace was ready to take his career to the next level.

2011 statistics

Wins0
Top-fives2
Top-10s5
Poles0
DNFs5
Laps Led6
Avg. Start14.3
Avg. Finish17.0

"I think it's a really good deal for all of us. I think I've got as big of a shot at it as anybody has," Wallace said back in January. "The last couple of years, me and Justin Allgaier and Trevor Bayne were the only guys to really run with those guys. I'm excited about it, and I think it will be cool."

But 2011 was anything but cool for Wallace. He was once again plagued with multiple DNFs due to crashes and instead of improving on his numbers, Wallace posted a career-low five top-10 finishes and finished on the lead lap just 14 times, his worst mark since 2007.

Things to smile about

Wallace continued his improvement in qualifying, posting a career-best average start of 14.3. While Wallace didn't win any poles in 2011, he did start in the top 10 nine times, including on the front row at Nashville which led to an 11th-place finish.

Of Wallace's five top-10s, four of them were career-highs at the track, which shows he is improving. Wallace posted a fifth at Darlington, matching his best finish at the track in 2008. In May, Wallace scored his first top-10 at Charlotte with a seventh-place finish and then in July grabbed his first top-10 at New Hampshire with a ninth-place run. And perhaps most importantly, Wallace scored his first career top-five on a road course with a fourth-place effort at Montreal.

Finally, Wallace made his Sprint Cup debut in 2011, and was pretty impressive. Wallace finished 20th and on the lead lap in the Daytona 500 after starting 36th in his only Cup race of the season.

Reasons to frown

Once again, Wallace was his own worst enemy, with multiple DNFs due to wrecks. Wallace posted five DNFs due to accidents, matching his crash output in 2010. And those were just the accidents that forced the No. 66 to the garage. There were multiple races during which Wallace found himself in the middle of an on-track skirmish, most notably and coincidentally in his best finish of the season at Montreal.

On Lap 56, Wallace made contact with local hero Patrick Carpentier in his final NASCAR race. Carpentier was knocked out of the event and after the race, Carpentier's crew chief, Larry Baxter, reached into Wallace's car on pit road and pulled Wallace's hair.

Wallace was able to laugh the incident off, but it highlighted the fact there are some in the series who are unhappy with Wallace's learning curve and his aggressiveness on the track.

Looking into the crystal ball

The 2012 season could be a huge one for Wallace. For the first time in his career, the crew chief Wallace ended the season with will be back on top of the box in Daytona. Doug Randolph is slated to be return to the No. 66 team and this can only help Wallace as he gets some much-needed stability on his race team.

The ultimate question for Wallace is his racing maturity. Will he know when to push it and when to back off? Will he be able to bring his Toyota back to the shop each week with minimal damage? If Wallace is able to mature on the track, there is no reason to think he can't earn his first trip to Victory Lane and compete for the Nationwide championship.

Take a look at Steve Wallace's 2011 season below: