DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace (search) will retire at the end of the 2005 season, citing concerns about getting hurt and saying Monday he wanted to leave at the top of his game.
Wallace's decision was influenced by the death of his competitor, Dale Earnhardt (search), who was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
"After Earnhardt lost his life three or four years ago, it kind of got to me," Wallace said at a news conference at the Daytona International Speedway (search) complex.
The 48-year-old St. Louis native won 55 races after making his NASCAR debut in 1980. He has won almost every major race except the Daytona 500 (search), which Wallace said he is focused on winning before he retires.
"This is my last shot at the Daytona 500," Wallace said. "The Daytona 500 is still the granddaddy of them all, it's the race I haven't won and I'm going to try my darndest to win it."
Wallace, who drives for Penske Racing South, said he plans to stay involved with race-car driving after he retires as a team owner and a mentor for younger drivers. His brothers, Mike and Kenny, and his 17-year-old son Stephen also are race-car drivers.
He also plans to stay in the public eye through television commercials from his corporate sponsorships from Miller Brewing Co. and other companies.
"It's hard for a great driver to say, 'Look, it's time,"' said Roger Penske, majority owner of Penske Racing South. "But I think that's the position of a great driver to say 'I know when it's time for me to move on."'
Wallace brought to race-car driving an enthusiasm and intensity that helped spread the sport's popularity during the past 20 years, said Brian France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR.
"Whenever we needed Rusty to help us win the people over ... he would jump on an airplane and do whatever it takes to help us grow the sport," France said.
Bill France Jr., co-vice chairman of NASCAR, who handed control of NASCAR over to his son, Brian, last year, said he would miss Wallace's outspokenness, "despite all the times he has given us hell about one thing or another."
"Whatever his feelings about a particular issue, Rusty always has been interested in the betterment of the sport," France said.
Wallace became a full-time competitor on the circuit in 1984, the year he won a Rookie of the Year award. He claimed the series national driving title in 1989 and finished as a runner-up for the championship in 1988 and 1993. His most recent victory was April in Martinsville, Va.
Wallace said he struggled with his decision but concluded retirement was the best option.
"It's time. I feel it," Wallace said. "I know I'm doing the right thing and I feel good about it."