Kenny Wallace is the first to admit it.
He was a punchline.
“There was an old joke one time, ‘He’s back,'” Wallace said Friday at Iowa Speedway, the day before his 904th and final NASCAR start.
That was when he was a “B driver,” called upon when an “A” driver was out of commission.
He replaced Steve Park for 12 races in 2001, which included a pole and second-place run at Rockingham. There were the seven races as Ernie Irvan’s substitute in 1994, when he qualified second at Atlanta and finished fourth at Martinsville.
The latter came during Wallace’s “sweet spot” from 1991 and 2000, the 10 seasons when the youngest of the Wallace brothers could be found competing full time in either the Sprint Cup or Xfinity Series.
Except when he wasn’t.
“I’m probably a driver that if other drivers wouldn’t have got hurt, I’d probably have been done,” Wallace says. “Every time I got in a good car, I performed. I’ve always been that ‘B’ driver and I’m proud of that.”
There were a “couple of hard spots” during his 903 starts across NASCAR’s three national touring series and his record 546 Xfinity Series starts.
But there was that sweet spot.
“That’s when I won my nine Xfinity races,” Wallace said. “That was the time I earned (the right) to keep coming back.”
The 52-year-old driver and analyst for Fox Sports will be back one final time, in today’s Xfinity Series U.S. Cellular 250, driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Seven years after his last Sprint Cup start and four after his last full season on the Xfinity circuit, Wallace will make his final start in a NASCAR-sanctioned race.
“That’s not all in one minute I can tell you that,” Wallace says, but then he does.
Hurting his back in a wreck while substituting for his brother Mike Wallace at JGL Racing in the Xfinity race at Talladega this year kicked the tires on the thought.
“I told my daughter driving home from Talladega, ‘Holy hell, what’s going on here?’”
Then came the year’s first race at Iowa, a stuck clutch and a head-on impact with the wall on the first lap.
When JGL Racing asked him to return for the July Daytona race, he surprised himself.
“I said no. It came out so fast. I was like, ‘wow,’” Wallace recalled.
But Wallace, who made his first NASCAR start in a 1988 Busch Grand National race at Martinsville Speedway for Dale Earnhardt Sr., recognizes he is one of the last “active” drivers from his generation.
“I’m looking around me and there’s nobody in this sport from my days. Jeff Gordon, that’s it,” Wallace says. Both Gordon and Wallace were Sprint Cup rookies in 1993. “There’s nobody else. They’re all gone. Mark Martin’s gone, Jeff Burton’s gone.
“All these guys are quitting in their 40s now. If you look at it, Burton just peeled out, never announced a retirement. He’s in his 40s and I’m like ‘are you going to say anything?’ I guess he’s not.
“Same thing with Bobby Labonte. Everybody’s just afraid to say they’re done. Hell, I’m just done. You know what I mean? I’m just done. It’s liking taking an orange and just squeezing it and there’s no more to come out.”
Wallace says he’s exhausted from trying to find the money to race. But his last squeeze comes with one of the winningest teams in Xfinity Series history and a national sponsor in U.S. Cellular.
“Pretty cool to run your last race with a national sponsor,” Wallace says. “It ain’t like I got Bubba’s Chicken on it.”