By Lee Montgomery
Special to Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
When Kenny Wallace first faced the notion that he'd be making his 500th NASCAR Nationwide Series start some time this season, he wasn't sure what to think.
What did 500 starts mean? If it meant something, what did it matter?
Wallace talked to his friends about the milestone and soon accepted that it was a big deal. This weekend, he'll reach 500 starts when he takes the green flag at Iowa Speedway, a track designed by his older brother, Rusty Wallace, for the Iowa John Deere Dealers 250.
"Five hundred starts, I thought to myself, 'Why is it a big deal?'" Wallace said. "I asked Tracey Judd of NASCAR, 'Why are you making such a big deal out of 500 starts?' I've asked other people the same thing. And the response I hear from everybody is because it's hard to make 500 starts in the Nationwide Series.
"When I think about it, I'm really excited, really happy. It means a lot to me. It's a big week for me, and now I understand why it's such a big deal."
Wallace will become the second driver to reach 500 Nationwide starts, trailing only Jason Keller (who holds the series record with 519).
The number Wallace is most proud of, though, is 855-that's how many races he's run across all of NASCAR. He looks on the Nationwide Series as the place where he started his career, where he resurrected his career and where he'll likely end his career.
"Now that I look back on my career, I love the sport of NASCAR. I've had a lot of peaks and valleys," said Wallace, who ran several full-time years in Sprint Cup Series before he 'couldn't stay there.' "I've had a lot of happiness, a lot of disappointments. But all in all, if my dad would've told me in St. Louis when I was a kid, 'Kenny you'll get to go NASCAR racing and you're going to race your whole life and make 855 starts,' I'd have said, 'It would have been a fantasy.'"
Wallace's Nationwide career began in 1988 when Rusty Wallace called to tell him he'd be running full time the following year in what was known as the Busch Series.
"What is that?" Kenny said.
Kenny was racing ASA out of his hometown of St. Louis at the time and didn't know much about NASCAR. Rusty arranged for Kenny to drive a Dale Earnhardt-owned Chevrolet at Martinsville, and a career was born.
"I owe everything to Rusty," Kenny said. "I'm going to honor Rusty and thank him a lot this week."
Kenny Wallace has nine career victories in the Nationwide Series, but none since 2001. He took a leap of faith for 2011 by driving for RAB Racing without a salary. RAB was a step up, performance-wise, than his previous teams, and Wallace has responded with a solid start to the season.
He's seventh in the Nationwide standings, posting three top-10 finishes in the first 11 races-after getting three top 10s in the previous three years.
"I'll be 48 in August," Wallace said. "Everybody knows I've got two, three years left. It's very important to me to end my career with dignity, and that's the reason I'm driving this car free. (Car owner) Robby (Benton's) not paying me. I'm all in. That's our motto this year at RAB Racing."
What: Iowa John Deere Dealers 250
Where: Iowa Speedway; Newton, Iowa
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. Eastern
TV: ABC, 1:30 p.m. Eastern
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 90
Track layout: .875-mile oval
Race distance: 250 laps/218.8 miles
Qualifying: Saturday, 4:40 p.m. Eastern
2010 winner: Kyle Busch
2010 polesitter: Trevor Bayne
Points standings: 1. Elliott Sadler, 379; 2. Reed Sorenson, 369; 3. Jason Leffler, 364: 4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 363; 5. Justin Allgaier, 361; 6. Aric Almirola, 339; 7. Kenny Wallace, 317; 8. Brian Scott, 286; 9. Steve Wallace, 282; 10. Josh Wise, 274.