Countdown To New York: No 5

Ricky Rudd thought the expectations of him might have been a bit too lofty.

After taking over the seat of the No. 28 Texaco-Havoline Ford, some said Rudd could be an instant NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship contender. Some said Rudd was ready to win five races in 2000, maybe more.

An unfair assessment, Rudd says, considering he knew it would take some time for him and his new team to jell and get comfortable with its new driver.

“A lot of that talk was based on the previous success I had and the previous success that this team and car had enjoyed,” says Rudd, who joined Robert Yates Racing prior to the 2000 campaign after six years of owning a single-car operation. “I had a rough couple of years in 1998 and 1999, but people realized I could still drive and still was capable of winning races, and they knew the winning tradition and atmosphere surrounding the 28 team was still there.

“But in most instances, you can’t sit there and make judgments on a team like that, especially one that has a new driver coming in that isn’t familiar with the team and hasn’t spent any time there. It takes a while for something like that to come together, sometimes half a season, sometimes three-quarters of a season.

“We knew we were going to be a pretty decent team, perhaps one that could finish in the Top 10. That was really our biggest goal at the beginning of the season, and anything else we could accomplish would be gravy for us.”

Little did Rudd know that not only would the Texaco-Havoline team be a consistent top-10 contender, but that it would eventually wind up finishing fifth in the Winston Cup points standings.

Rudd wound up with 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes for the year with only one DNF (at Phoenix). He finished 24th in the season finale at Atlanta - while Tony Stewart finished 38th - allowing him to edge Stewart for the fifth position in the rankings by a mere five points.

So when did Rudd get an indication his team had the potential to finish in the Top 5? He didn’t have to wait too long for that.

“We surprised ourselves right off the bat at Daytona,” Rudd says. “We qualified second behind (teammate) Dale Jarrett for the Daytona 500, and we wound up with a decent finish (15th). Then we had a Top 10 at Rockingham and some decent runs at Las Vegas and Atlanta, but we never really got it all together and started running consistently until about California.

“That’s when we started to make our move and people began to realize that this team could really make noise. We still weren’t ready to win a race at that point, but we were getting close. We were beginning to close the gap on some teams.”

Rudd ran fourth at California and followed that up with another fourth-place finish at Richmond. It was at Pocono in June, however, when Rudd caught fire and reeled off three straight Top 5s, including a fifth-place finish at Daytona in the Pepsi 400.

His first real opportunity to win a race came at Michigan, when Rusty Wallace passed him late in the event and relegated him to a second-place finish. Victory would again elude him at Charlotte, when it appeared he had the car to beat before a late caution flag doomed his chances, allowing Bobby Labonte took the checkered flag.

Rudd again had a strong car at Rockingham, but finished third.

Then came the ultimate nightmare.

Rudd appeared to be on his way to victory lane at Phoenix - with a substantial lead late in the Dura Lube 500 - when he got caught up in a lapped-traffic accident. He wound up finishing a disappointing 37th and watched Jeff Burton celebrate instead of himself.

“Charlotte was very disappointing, but Phoenix was probably the biggest disappointment of the season,” Rudd says. “We kept working and working on our car until we got it right, and we finally did, and we were hooked up and ready to win. I don’t know if we would have or not, but it was our best chance. For something like that to happen, it was just a shame.”

The accident and DNF was a setback, but Rudd didn’t let it spoil his season. He was able to overcome a late rush by Stewart and bounced him from the fifth position in the points after Atlanta.

The fact that he did not win a race in 2000, Rudd says, will haunt him throughout the winter. But then he said that will make him even more determined to win early, and often, in 2001. This time, he expects it from himself and the team.

“We were on the brink of breaking through this year, so we know it can happen,” Rudd says. “It’ll come next year, it’s only a matter of time. I want to get back to winning races for myself and for Robert (Yates) and this team. I know we can do that, and who knows, we might just be a contender for the championship, too.”

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2000, Ricky Rudd

Photos

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  • Brickyard 400
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  • Gordon Wins Fifth at Indy
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  • 1994 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 1995 Brickyard Winner: Dale Earnhardt
  • 1996 Brickyard Winner: Dale Jarrett
  • 1997 Brickyard Winner: Ricky Rudd
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  • 2000 Brickyard Winner: Bobby Labonte
  • 2001 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 2002 Brickyard Winner: Bill Elliott
  • 2003 Brickyard Winner: Kevin Harvick
  • 2004 Brickyard Winner: Jeff Gordon
  • 2005 Brickyard Winner: Tony Stewart
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  • 2010 Brickyard Winner: Jamie McMurray
  • 2011 Brickyard Winner: Paul Menard
  • 2012 Brickyard Winner: Jimmie Johnson
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