Prior to joining the NASCAR circuit, Wallace made a name for himself racing around in Florida, by the late 1970s by winning a pair of local track championships. Wallace, a Missouri native, won more than 200 short track races. In 1979 he won United States Auto Club's (USAC) Stock Car Rookie of the Year honors, finishing third in points behind A. J. Foyt and Bay Darnell. He finished second USAC Stock Cars in 1981 behind Joe Ruttman.
In 1983 he won the American Speed Association (ASA) championship while competing against some of NASCAR's future stars like Mark Martin, 1992 NASCAR Champion Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle.
Wallace finished second in his first NASCAR race in the 1980 Atlanta 500, in which he started 7th, driving for Roger Penske in the No. 16. He made 9 further NASCAR appearances over the next 3 years, although he did not score any further Top 10 finishes until he went full-time in 1984. He joined the Winston Cup circuit full-time that year, winning NASCAR Rookie of the Year honors and finishing 14th in the final points standings. He drove the No. 88 Gatorade-sponsored Pontiac for Cliff Stewart with the best finish of 4th in 30 races, along with two 5th-place finished and four further Top 10's. Wallace stayed with Cliff Stewart for 1985 but this time, he drove the No. 2 Valugard Pontiac. In 29 races, Wallace had two Top 5s and eight Top 10s.
For 1986, Wallace switched teams to the No. 27 alugard Pontiac for Raymond Beadle's Blue Max Racing team. His first win came at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 6, 1986. He also won at Martinsville on September 21. He finished the year with 2 wins, four Top 5's and sixteen Top 10's in 29 races. He finished 6th in the points, making this his first Top 10 finish in the standings. In 1987, Wallace gained sponsorship from Kodiak tobacco, establishing the No. 27 Kodiak-sponsored Pontiac livery his early career is most remembered for. He scored victories at Watkins Glen and Riverside, as well as his first series pole at Michigan in June. These results were backed up with nine Top 5's and sixteen Top 10's in 29 races. He finished 5th in the points standings.
Wallace developed his career further in 1988, scoring 6 victories (including 4 of the final 5 races of the year). His wins were at Michigan, Charlotte, North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, the final race ever at Riverside, and the season finale at Atlanta. With these 6 wins as well as nineteen Top 5's and four further Top 10's, he finished 2nd to Bill Elliott by 24 points.
In 1989, Wallace won the NASCAR Winston Cup Championship with crew chief Barry Dodson, by finishing 15th at the Atlanta Journal 500 at Atlanta to beating out close friend and fierce rival Dale Earnhardt (the race winner) by 12 points. Wallace also won The Winston in a controversial fashion, by spinning out Darrell Waltrip on the last lap.
In 1990, Raymond Beadle switched sponsors, to Miller Genuine Draft. The 4-year sponsorship deal was tied specifically to Wallace, meaning it went where the 1989 championship went. The 1989 championship year was reportedly marked with acrimony between him and Beadle. However, Wallace was stuck with the team for 1990 due to his contract. Rusty had 18 wins for Beadle.
In 1991, Wallace took the Miller sponsorship with him to Penske Racing, and he continued in the No. 2 Miller Genuine Draft-sponsored Pontiac. He also won the 1991 IROC championship. While 1992 only carried him 1 win, the win at the Miller 400 was satisfying; it was the first win for Wallace in a car which arguably was his best known chassis for his career, one affectionately known as "Midnight" after the win. With this nickname, the car raced for 6 seasons, carrying various race wins before being taken out of the fleet in 1997.
1993 was arguably his most successful season despite two major accidents at Daytona and Talladega, in which his car went airborne and flipped several times. He had already won the second race of the season on February 28, 1993, at North Carolina Motor Speedway but also a sad one as his friend and reigning NASCAR Champion Alan Kulwicki was killed flying into Bristol in April 1993. Because of this, Wallace won the race at Bristol and in respect to Alan Kulwicki, he did a "Polish victory lap"—turning his car around and driving around the track the wrong way, as made famous by Kulwicki. Every race Wallace won that year he did a "Kulwicki victory lap". He won all 3 races in April (Bristol on April 4, North Wilkesboro on April 18 and Martinsville on April 25). Also, he won the first ever race at the New Hampshire Speedway, starting 33rd, on July 11. In 1993, he won 10 of the 30 races, but finished second in the final points standings, 80 points behind Earnhardt. He ended the season strong, finishing in the Top 3 in all but two of the final 10 races of the season.
Penske switched to Fords in 1994. In 1996, sponsorship changed from Miller Genuine Draft to Miller beer sponsorship.
In 1997, Miller changed the team's sponsorship to Miller Lite, replacing the black and gold with a blue and white scheme. In 1998, Wallace won the Bud Shootout at Daytona, a non-points race for the previous years pole winners and past winners of the race. It was the first win for Ford's new Taurus, and Wallace's only victory at NASCAR's premier track (as well as his only victory in any restrictor plate race) in a Cup car.
In 2000, he secured his 50th career win at Bristol. He also won at Michigan, Pocono, and the night race at Bristol. He finished 7th in the final points standings after some inconsistency in the championship race. The next year, he won at California for his 54th career win. He won on what would have been Dale Earnhardt's 50th birthday and paid tribute to him with an Earnhardt flag. Wallace almost won the 2002 Sharpie 500 after being bumped out of the way by his rival Jeff Gordon.
In 2003, Penske Racing switched to Dodge and appropriately, in 2004, Wallace won his 55th (and final) race on a short track: the 2004 spring Martinsville Speedway race. It was also the last win for the track under the ownership of the H. Clay Earles Trust; the death of Mary Weatherford (matriarch of the trust) forced the Trust to sell the track a month later.
On August 30, 2004, Wallace announced that the 2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup season would be his last as a full-time driver. Although at the time the possibility remained that he may have continued to run a limited schedule after the 2005 season—as semi-retirees Bill Elliott and Terry Labonte also have done, Wallace's current broadcasting contract forbids him from doing so. Kurt Busch would replace Wallace in the number 2 Miller Lite-sponsored Dodge in 2006–2010. In 2011, Brad Keselowski began driving the number 2.
In 2006, Wallace returned to his General Motors roots when he raced a Crawford-Pontiac sportscar, painted black and carrying the familiar stylized No. 2. The car was sponsored by Callaway Golf, in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, teamed with Danica Patrick and Allan McNish, In 2008, his Nationwide Series cars switched from Dodge to Chevrolet.
To date, Wallace has had 55 NASCAR Cup wins, which is tied for 8th on NASCAR's all-time wins list. They include victories at Charlotte as well as the series' last three road courses (Riverside, Infineon and Watkins Glen), but none at Daytona, Darlington, Indianapolis or Talladega. He has the most short track wins in NASCAR history with 34, and therefore he is considered among the best short track drivers in NASCAR history. He retired after the 2005 season with a 14.4 career average finish.
In 2014, Wallace ran at Daytona for testing before the 2014 Daytona 500 as part of a promotion for Miller Lite's 40th anniversary, marking the first time a NASCAR Hall of Famer has driven in a NASCAR test. When asked about the testing, Wallace stated, "It all started at Homestead. I was standing between the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) and 2 (Brad Keselowski) cars joking around and those guys were egging me on to get back in a car and when Brad got wind of it, he called me up two weeks later and was serious about it and Roger (Penske) was all for it. Everyone in the world has been on me to test. ‘Why haven’t you been back in a car?’ This here kind of got me."
Wallace's legacy, besides being a close rival of Dale Earnhardt, was a number of severe wrecks he endured, especially at restrictor plate racetracks. The first one happened in 1983, when Wallace was attempting the Daytona 500 through the Gatorade Twin 125's. He was tapped by Rick Wilson, got airborne, and went on a spectacular series of flips that left him hospitalized. His next flip came at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1988. What started it was unclear, but Wallace somehow managed to climb the wall and did a barrel roll. The roof of his car caved in. ESPN commentator Dr. Jerry Punch was the first responder, and possibly saved his life. In 1993, Wallace had two massive flips – both at plate tracks. The first was at the 1993 Daytona 500, where he was tapped by the crashing cars of Michael Waltrip and Derrike Cope, and barrel rolled multiple times in the grass on the back straightaway several feet in the air. Months later, at Talladega, racing to the checkered flag, Wallace was tagged from behind by Dale Earnhardt, turned backwards, and flew into the air before violently flipping in the grass past the start-finish line, breaking a wrist (the area where Wallace's car wrecked has since been paved over). Earnhardt was visibly shaken by the incident and did make sure Wallace was okay by checking on him after the race had concluded. Wallace finished 80 points behind Earnhardt in the final points for 1993.. He also had an airborne crash in his last Gatorade Twin in 2005 when Dave Blaney clipped his right rear tire and sent his car off the ground. The car never turned over though.
On April 1, 2015, Wallace tested a Speed Energy Formula Off-Road truck owned by former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, and the following day, he announced he would race in the series' X Games round in Austin. After finishing last in his heat race, he was relegated to the last-chance qualifier. During the LCQ, Wallace rolled his truck, but continued running; he would finish sixth in the event, and failed to qualify for the feature.
In 2016, Wallace returned to racing when he competed in the Ferrari Finali Mondiali at Daytona. Driving for Risi Competizione, Wallace finished tenth overall and third in the Professional, North America class.
On January 25, 2006, it was announced that Wallace would cover auto racing events for ESPN and ABC. Despite Wallace's lack of open-wheel racing experience, his assignments began with the IndyCar Series and included the Indianapolis 500 (in a perhaps forgivable lapse, he described a thrilling battle on the last lap as "The most exciting Daytona 500 ever!"). He joined the NASCAR broadcasting team for both networks when they started coverage of the sport in 2007. He signed a six-year deal with ESPN in 2006. He returned to commentate for the 2007 Indy 500. He co-hosts NASCAR Angels with Shannon Wiseman.
Up until 2012, Wallace owned and operated Rusty Wallace Racing, which fielded the No. 62 Pilot Flying J Toyota Camry driven by Michael Annett and the No. 66 5 Hour Energy Toyota Camry driven by his son Steve Wallace. This operation was temporarily suspended due to the loss of sponsorship. However, Steve Wallace confirmed on his Twitter account that the team would return for the Nationwide Series race at Richmond in May 2012 in a former Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang, powered by a Roush-Yates engine. It was numbered 66, but it was unclear what the sponsor would be, or if the team would run more races during the season.
Wallace's brothers, Kenny and Mike, race on the NASCAR circuit. He and his wife Patti have three children — Greg, Katie, and Stephen. Stephen races in the Nationwide Series and made his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut at the 2011 Daytona 500, making him the fourth member of his family to compete in the Daytona 500 and in NASCAR, behind the Bodines (Geoff, Brett, and Todd), Pettys (Lee, Richard, and Kyle), Earnhardts (Dale, Kerry and Dale Jr.), and the Allisons (Bobby, Donnie, and Davey). Wallace's father, Russell Wallace Sr., died on October 30, 2011, at age 77.
In late 2005, Wallace broke ground on his "Signature Design Speedway" in Newton, Iowa. Iowa Speedway had its first race on September 15, 2006, and hosted many races in 2007 including an IndyCar race. The track is noted for its structural similarity to Richmond International Raceway, where Wallace has won six times. Iowa Speedway hosted its first NASCAR Nationwide Series race in 2009.2003 – Callaway Golf – Callaway Golf Signs NASCAR Driver Rusty Wallace to Multiyear Endorsement and Licensing Agreement.
2009 – U.S. Fidelis – USfidelis TV Campaign Debuts, Featuring NASCAR's Steve and Rusty Wallace. The March 2010 bankruptcy of US Fidelis lists Rusty Wallace Racing as a creditor owed $535,439.
2009 – Lista International Corporation – Legendary NASCAR Driver Rusty Wallace Endorses Lista Products in New Online Video
Wallace made a cameo appearance in the movie Days of Thunder. He and his brothers all appeared in the Electronic Arts video game NASCAR Rumble. Mike was featured as a Craftsman Truck Series driver, driving the No. 2 ASE Dodge (no specific car makes for the Trucks; the real truck was a Dodge at the time), Kenny was featured in the game driving the No. 55 Square D Chevrolet (although the game's commercial showed him driving the No. 81 Square D Ford) & Rusty was featured in the game driving his No. 2 Ford, with the exception that the Miller Lite stickers are replaced by Penske Racing stickers similar to current Penske Championship Racing driver Brad Keselowski, whose sponsor is censored by NASCAR's ban on wireless telephone advertising.
All publishers of NASCAR titles are prohibited from carrying alcohol or tobacco advertising on their cars. He was teammates with his brother Mike, once in his career when Mike Wallace subbed for Jeremy Mayfield at Penske Racing. The No. 62 South Point Chevrolet Impala SS driven by Brendan Gaughan in 2009 on the NASCAR Nationwide Series intentionally carries a black and gold paint scheme reminiscent of Wallace's legendary "Miller Genuine Draft " car.1988, 1993 Richard Petty Driver of the Year
2005 NASCAR Illustrated Person of the Year Award recipient
2005 Myers Brothers Award recipient
With 55 career points-paying victories, Wallace is ranked ninth among the all-time NASCAR Cup Series winners; he is ranked seventh (in a tie with Bobby Allison) among those who have competed during the sport's modern era (1972–present).
(key) (Bold – Pole position awarded by qualifying time. Italics – Pole position earned by points standings or practice time. * – Most laps led.)
(key) (Bold – Pole position. * – Most laps led.)