Rudd Takes Lows With Highs

LOUDON, N.H. – Ricky Rudd has to be scratching his head. No matter what he did late in the New England 300, he wasn’t going to gain much.

Had he won the race – and it looked like he was about to do that – he would have left New Hampshire International Raceway either 18 or 13 points out of the NASCAR Winston Cup points lead.

Had teammate Dale Jarrett finished second, Rudd would have been 13 points behind Jarrett and Gordon. Had Gordon finished second, the points would have stayed the same.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Three hundred treacherous miles and the best he could have done was five points? Kinda hurts.

But wait. That was the best-case scenario. As it was, Rudd didn’t win the race. Shoot, he didn’t even finish second. Instead, after a race he should have won – even race-winner Jarrett admitted as much – Rudd ended up LOSING points.

That’s enough to make a guy pull his hair out, let alone scratch his head.

“Well, circumstances just didn’t work out our way,” said Rudd, shrugging his shoulders. “If I let it bother me, I probably wouldn’t have been racing for 26 years because this isn’t the only time we’ve had a race slip away from us.”

That’s the voice of a veteran, of course. Rudd has been through enough in his career to not get too high after a victory or too low after a crushing defeat.

Still, Sunday’s race was difficult to swallow for Rudd, who is in the best position of his career to win a Winston Cup championship. Rudd’s team has been strong the past couple of months, and the second victory of the season was in his sights.

With 10 laps to go, Jarrett was a few car-lengths behind Rudd, having chopped a bigger lead to next to nothing. But Jarrett later admitted he wasn’t going to pass Rudd.

“It was gonna be tough to pass Ricky,” Jarrett said. “I mean, when you’re trying to pass another guy that’s got the same amount of horsepower you’ve got, that makes it difficult.

“His car was good through the corner. I could get through the center a little bit better, but you’d lose a little bit of that downforce on the front by being behind. It seemed the guy out front had a little bit of an advantage, and it would have been tough.

“I don’t know that I would have won the race – probably would not have won the race if that last caution hadn’t come out.”

If, as it often is, is a huge word. The caution did come out – thanks to a misunderstanding about racing etiquette between Jerry Nadeau and Jimmy Spencer – and Jarrett had his chance. Rudd’s car wasn’t great on restarts anyway, but with a gummed-up track, Rudd had to be extra careful.

That’s all Jarrett needed, slipping under Rudd with four laps to go. Then, Rudd was also powerless to stop Gordon, who followed Jarrett through for second place.

Third place. It just doesn’t seem fair.

“There’s absolutely nothing we can do about controlling the cautions other than getting this race track to fix itself,” Rudd said. “You wouldn’t have so many spins, but I can’t get bitter about the cautions coming out. Certainly I’m disappointed, but I’m not ready to quit or give up. Next week we come back and come back stronger hopefully, and that’s pretty much all I can say. No one enjoys running second and nobody enjoys running third, but certain days you take what you can get.”

That attitude should serve Rudd well over the next 17 races. Twenty-eight points is not a big deal and can be easily made up. With a minor slip by Jarrett or Gordon, Rudd could have a 28-point lead.

One thing is sure: the New England 300 won’t be the last race you’ll see Rudd, Jarrett and Gordon racing each other.

“The three cars that you saw that were the best all day are the three cars that are up front in the points,” Jarrett said. “I think it shows you’re gonna have to be on top of your game each and every week here, and you can’t make any mistakes. As far as the Yates cars, yeah, because we’ve been working well together, that we’ve got both cars running extremely well and we’re gonna give each other a chance to win each and every week. I hope it comes down to the two of us at Atlanta (the last race of the year).”

Rudd wouldn’t mind that either, just as he didn’t mind a little contact when Jarrett made the winning pass.

“I think he sees me as just another race car out there on the race track with 10 laps to go, and the feeling is obliged,” Rudd said. “It was Dale (Sunday), and I’ll do what I have to do to move by and get by him. Again, the teammate deal, if he didn’t drive that hard to try to win races he probably wouldn’t be on the Robert Yates race team. I don’t have any hard feelings. I think he did exactly what he needed to do. He raced the car as hard as he could race it today. We raced as hard as we could. Like I say, we just couldn’t do anything on the restarts, but there are no hard feelings.”

There were some hard feelings between the two crews after the bump, but both drivers said that would blow over.

“We realize right now that our strength is working together,” Jarrett said. “That’s helped us to become better race teams and be more competitive with the 24 week in and week out, and we have to continue that. I think we’ve all talked about it enough.

“We realize this championship isn’t just between the two of us right now. There are at least three of us in the mix and could be more if things happened up front. Right now the best thing for us to do is work together, and we’ve all said, ‘Let’s continue this,’ and if it got to Atlanta that would be great. Let’s continue to share the information. Let’s go out on the race track and figure this thing out and see who wins there, and let the pit crews help decide it.”

The goal, then, is to beat Gordon. If it’s Rudd, fine. If it’s Jarrett, fine. If it’s both, great.

“If you look at it week-in and week-out, which car is the more dominant car, you’d have to look at it and say Jeff’s car has been more dominant than we have been,” Rudd said. “It’s gonna take both of us to catch up. Jeff right now, week-in and week-out, has been the toughest. I was real happy with the way both Yates cars ran this week.”

That attitude only goes so far, of course. Rudd wants to be the guy at the head table at the Waldorf-Astoria, teammate, schmeammate. He’s a race driver, and race drivers all want to win.

But Rudd is also a realist. By the time he gets to Pocono Raceway for Friday’s qualifying, Sunday’s results from NHIS will be a memory. There’s another race to run, another race to win.

And maybe some points to gain.

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