Rudds Patience Pays Off

Ricky Rudd had all but given up on his championship hopes for yet another year.

A blown engine at Texas Motor Speedway on April 1 relegated the veteran driver of the No. 28 Ford to a 37th-place finish in the Harrah’s 500, leaving him mired in 11th place in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings.

He was a whopping 261 points behind teammate Dale Jarrett at that point, and it seemed as if yet another season – his 25th in the Winston Cup Series – would go by the boards without claiming his elusive first series title.

Oh how the winds of fortune have changed in the past three months.

Not only has Rudd broken his winless drought (which stood at 88 races prior to his victory at Pocono Raceway), but he has also, for the first time in several years, put himself in a position the second half of the season to contend for a coveted Winston Cup championship.

His seven-consecutive top-10 finishes, including three consecutive top-four finishes, have brought him to within 145 points of leader Jeff Gordon heading into the 17th race of the season – Saturday night’s Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

“It’s been a long time since I seriously challenged for a championship,” Rudd said. “We had a real good chance that year, but we were not strong on the superspeedways, and we were not strong on the mile-and-a-half tracks. We simply beat ourselves that year.

“This team (his present team), however, is strong everywhere. There are no guarantees that we can beat Gordon or Dale (Jarrett), but I think we’re definitely going to be in the thick of things for a while. We hope we have no crazy failures. That would be the only thing to knock us out.”

It’s been a long road back for Rudd after a disappointing start to his second season with Robert Yates Racing. In his first seven races, he had three finishes of 19th or worse and two finishes of 37th or worse.

Not exactly what the 28 team had hoped for after finishing a solid fifth in the standings in their first year together (driver and team) in 2000.

“This year hasn’t been a thing of frustration, but we had our problems early on,” Rudd said. “We had just about two mechanical failures in a row and we sort of said, ‘Man, there goes the points championship.’ We basically wrote it off after about four or five races in…

“But here we are, all of a sudden, back in the points battle in third. But it’s a long season. We’re still in the thick of things. We feel like we can get up there and contend. With a team effort we can beat ‘em (the competition) and they’ve got to be careful not to beat themselves, but again, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Rudd has finished in the Top 5 in the Winston Cup standings four times during his illustrious career. The closest he came to winning a title was in 1991 while driving for Rick Hendrick – finishing second – 195 points behind champion Dale Earnhardt.

His hopes of winning the title that year all but dissipated when he crashed and finished 32nd at Charlotte with four races remaining in the season.

With his switch over to Robert Yates Racing prior to last season, there was talk of Rudd contending for a championship right away. Rudd, however, wasn’t buying it, saying he knew there would be a period of adjustment for him and his new team.

“We could go on and on about last year, but that was a tough season,” Rudd said. “We were close (to winning) so many times inside 15 laps to go. We got in wrecks, cautions would come out, we would pit and they wouldn’t pit, and vice versa, and all of a sudden, we didn’t win. That was a tough year, and that’s behind us.”

This season, however, was a different story. Despite not winning a race a year ago, the Texaco-Havoline team garnered consideration from many as one of the title favorites.

He still, however, had to deal with the likes of three-time champion Jeff Gordon, defending champion Bobby Labonte, 1999 champion and RYR teammate Dale Jarrett, and up-and-coming Tony Stewart.

“If you talk to everybody over the winter, they say they’re gonna win the championship, and they rightfully mean that,” Rudd said. “They come into this thing with a lot of heart and soul and they know their teams are better than they were a year ago, so everyone is gonna win a championship.

“Then you start the season and, all of a sudden, you see a few guys that look like they’ve got the dominant car and you pick and choose who you think is really gonna win the championship. We didn’t have a winning, dominant car when the season started, but these guys (his crew) kept plugging away and we’ve gotten stronger a little bit each week.

“Knowing how close the points situation is, and how difficult it is to win one especially if you’re not consistent, that’s probably the reason why we threw that championship idea away after four races. Bobby Labonte is somebody that can help me with that. He ran, I think, something like all but one lap last year, and that’s consistency. That’s what wins championships.”

That and a solid foundation – which starts with the 28 team itself.

“Our guys at the track are working hard and that shows because we have fast cars at nearly every track we go,” said crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain. “Our pit crew shows determination and enthusiasm every week and they are as good as anyone out there right now. We’ve got 19 cars sitting in the shop, so it’s obvious the guys at the shop have done a fabulous job, too.”

Rudd’s victory at Pocono was certainly a huge boost for the Texaco-Havoline team’s confidence, as was the fact that Rudd could very well have won at Michigan the previous week, when he finished second to Gordon.

Despite the fact Rudd has never won a championship, McSwain said he’s got all the confidence in the world in his driver’s ability to keep the No. 28 Ford running up front and in stay contention for the title.

“I couldn’t ask for a better driver in our points situation,” McSwain said. “Ricky is a great points racer. He’s very consistent, never takes himself out of races, and since the team knows Ricky will fight to the end, they put forth their best effort when working on our car in order to develop strong runs late in races when it really counts.”

McSwain, Rudd and the team are making preparations for the season’s stretch run in advance. Choosing which tracks in which to test the second half of the season is a crucial element.

“We have four tests left,” McSwain said. “We know we’re testing at Indianapolis because that’s such an important race for us. We’re still figuring out which tracks will be most advantageous to us for the three remaining ones.”

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