BRISTOL, Tenn. - Rusty Wallace has never been hesitant to speak his mind at the racetrack.
Only now, he gets paid to do it.
Wallace is the lead analyst for ESPN's NASCAR coverage, which began this year.
"I'm having a good time doing it," he said Friday. "It takes a lot of time, but I really enjoy it."
None of the stops Wallace makes in his current gig is new; he's not going anywhere as an announcer that he didn't as a competitor. But according to the longtime driver of the Miller Lite Dodge, those familiar surroundings can be anything but in his new role.
"It feels funny not driving a car," Wallace said. "I drove my whole life and not to drive the car feels real strange right now. I feel a little lost being at the racetrack, to tell you the truth.
"But here at Bristol it feels like home because I've won so many times. I've got my motorcoach here, my friends here, my family here. Here I feel more at home. But California, Vegas, I felt like a lost soul out there."
Wallace ended a lengthy and lucrative driving career in 2005 with 55 victories and nearly $50 million in winnings - among the top five all-time in prize money earned. He signed a six-year deal with ESPN in 2006, working IRL events for that network and ABC. He switched back to NASCAR coverage this year, when ESPN began a mammoth television agreement that will see the network broadcast every Busch race and the final 17 Nextel Cup events this season.
The ESPN headquarters, located within the TV compound on the Bristol Motor Speedway grounds, is like a surreal world within a world. The network brought four massive trailers to Bristol - one production truck and three mobile units. Each is loaded with state-of-the-art equipment, including an abundance of HDTVs.
Thirty-four regular cameras were used during the broadcast of Saturday's Sharpie Mini 300, with 30 more in-car angles available.
The regulars travel and work in luxury. The wardrobes for each broadcaster and reporter are already waiting in garment bags after being dry-cleaned and transported by the network.
ESPN brings 150 people to every race.
"We've got about 185 people here this week," Wallace noted. "It's hard to believe it takes that many people to put a show on but it does. At Daytona we had 250, close to 300."
For Wallace, the toughest part might be keeping an even keel during the Busch races. His youngest son, Steve Wallace, is a regular on the Busch circuit this season, driving in a car owned by his father.
"I even practiced the situations he might get in and big wrecks to make sure I wouldn't react the wrong way when I'm on television," the elder Wallace noted.
The former driver's team is growing. He recently signed Chase Austin to compete in the 14-race Busch East Series. If Austin performs well enough, he may run a second Busch car for Rusty Wallace Inc. in 2008.
"I'm always going out and trying to sell sponsors for my own team, my own son. That's something that's hard and something that's different," Rusty Wallace said. "I've always been the guy that's maintained the sponsors - did all the appearances and things like that. But to actually get out there and have to sell them to people that really don't know the sport and don't understand the sport and keep telling the story over and over again is a tough deal."
Wallace might miss driving, but at least he's not contending with the headaches current Cup drivers face this weekend as they try to adapt to the Car of Tomorrow, which makes its competitive debut in today's Food City 500.
"They're all taking peculiar lines," Wallace observed. "They fly into corners, they slide up the racetrack, they're all diving in the corners - which is not the right way to get around Bristol - but I think that different car, it's pretty hard to get around a corner the way you really need to.
"They looked in control. They just ... the lines weren't what I'm used to seeing. In the race, they're not going to have as much downforce, so there may be more cautions than we're accustomed to."
And, with nine Cup race victories at Bristol to his credit, Wallace wasn't getting away without making a pick for today's race.
"I'm going to have to go ahead and pick Tony Stewart this weekend. I think he's overdue," he said. "If Stewart doesn't win I think it's going to be his teammate, Denny Hamlin."