Rudd Remains In Rut

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AVONDALE, Ariz. - The Dura-Lube 500 on Sunday at the Phoenix International Raceway proved to be another frustrating chapter in the 2000 Winston Cup season for Ricky Rudd.

Finally, after 31 races in his first season in the No. 28 Robert Yates Racing Ford, it looked as if there was going to be no denying Rudd from returning to victory lane for the first time since a warm, muggy day at Martinsville in 1998.

But with fewer than 20 laps to go, and a one-second lead in hand, dreams of a victory celebration went awry when he was caught up in a wreck with the lapped cars of Mike Bliss and Rick Mast.

In a matter of seconds, Rudd went from the lead into the path of Bliss, who had just careened into the back of Mast’s car. Even eventual race winner Jeff Burton said he hated to see Rudd end the race by wrecking through no fault of his own.

"I feel bad for Ricky," Burton said after his fourth triumph of the season. "He looked like he was in good shape. He got taken out and had an opportunity taken away from him, not of his doing, and that’s always hard as a driver, as a car owner, as a crew chief to take. 'What did we do wrong? Well, we didn’t do anything wrong, it's just circumstance.'

"That's the worst way to lose a race because when you do something wrong, you can go back and learn from that. He has nothing to learn from what happened today. It just happened in a bad spot and there was nothing he could do."

Instead of a long-awaited return to victory lane, Rudd finished 37th.

Clearly dejected at the late turn of events, Rudd couldn’t help but to agree with the assessment of Burton.

"We should have three, four, maybe even five wins this year," Rudd said. "But at least we ran well. The wreck at the end, I don’t know, it seems like other people’s circumstances dictate our finishes too much. But there’s not a whole lot you can do about it but pick up the pieces and go on."

Despite his troubles, however, Rudd’s first season with Yates has been no less than stellar. In 32 races, Rudd has 18 finishes of 10th or better and has posted only two DNF’s. Entering Sunday’s race, Rudd was fifth in the points standings, but he dropped back to sixth as a result of his late-race wreck.

With two races remaining, Rudd faces the task of overtaking Tony Stewart for fifth. Stewart is seven points ahead of him.

Rudd does take some consolation in the fact that his team has been exceptional in its first year of working together.

"It could be worse," said Rudd, who owned and drove for his own team the past several years before moving to Yates as a teammate of defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett. "We could have been running dead last. Last year here, I was in the back (of the pack) somewhere, and this year we were out front. We wreck leading the races. This is a position I haven’t been in before. Heck, I don’t know what to do but just keep on going."

Burton said that’s a philosophy that is going to pay off for Rudd down the road.

"Ricky is obviously a great driver, his wins will come again," Burton explained. "He’s showing everybody that he can still do it, there’s no doubt about that."

While Burton was tracking Rudd down in the closing laps, he says he doesn’t know for sure he would have been able to make the pass had Rudd not wrecked.

"We were about a tenth-and-a-half, two-tenths (of a second) quicker than Ricky, and he had a lot of lapped traffic in front of him that he was going to have to contend with," Burton said. "It’s always harder for the leader to pass the lap traffic than it is the second-place guy, so we were a little faster than he was at that point and he was going to have to deal with the lap traffic.

"Between those two things, we were going to get to him I think. What we did with him once we got to him, nobody knows, but it would have been an exciting place.

"I felt good about my chances because I could run where most people couldn’t run. Maybe we could have done that with Ricky, I don't know if we could have or not."

Second-place finisher Jeremy Mayfield, also one to go through some bad luck this year, said he can sympathize with Rudd.

"Ricky's luck has started to look like our luck," Mayfield said. "I mean, leading the race and getting in a wreck. Like at Charlotte, he was leading and we were running second. He was going to win there and four (tires) put him in the back, but he looked good.

"His car ran good all day and he got out front. Track position was so important today, which it’s that way every week, but it seemed like today it was very important. When he got out front, he took off and he was definitely gone."

Through it all, Rudd says he can see the light at the end of what seems to be a long, dark tunnel.

"I keep thinking it can’t get any worse," Rudd said. "The guys have really worked their butts off, and we don’t really have a whole lot to show for it, other than we had a Top 5 in the points until this race."

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