Ibanquet Countdown:/I Ricky Rudd

For only the second time in his nearly 25-plus years racing at NASCAR’s highest level, Ricky Rudd said he was happy to have a legitimate shot at winning a Winston Cup Series title.

And a legitimate shot it was, as Rudd went into the final two months of the season a distant, but not unreachable 212 points behind Jeff Gordon in the championship chase.

But then, as a financial wizard might say, “the bottom fell out.”

Following a third-place finish to Gordon in the inaugural Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway, Rudd and his No. 28 Texaco team hit the skids with five finishes of 21st or worse in the final eight races. In the meantime, Gordon stayed steady and consistent and went on to win his fourth career Winston Cup crown.

Rudd would tumble two more places in the points to finish a disappointing fourth, leaving him to wonder “What if?”

“We put ourselves in position throughout the season to make a run for the championship, and then we just fell apart at the end,” said Rudd, in his second season with Robert Yates Racing. “It’s pretty disappointing considering the fact that, otherwise, we had a pretty good year.

“We went to victory lane a couple of times and we were pretty consistent for a good stretch of the season. We’ll just have to wait until next year and hope that we can make another strong run at it.”

Time to win a championship may be running out on Rudd, who has 22 career Winston Cup victories. He turned 45 years old in September.

When he was with Hendrick Motorsports, he finished second in the championship chase to Dale Earnhardt in 1991, 195 points behind “The Intimidator.”

“When you look at it, that’s the only other time in my career that I’ve been able to challenge for a championship,” Rudd said. “I don’t feel like we lost it then as much as we gave it away. And that could probably be said for this year, too.

“Personally, I feel like I’ve got a couple of more years to challenge for a championship, but those years are certainly numbered. In some sense, it may be a bit of desperation. It’s not like I’m 25 years old. Hopefully we’ll be able to overcome the mistakes we made this year and see what happens again next year.”

Just the fact that he’s back with a championship-contending team has made Rudd’s life that much easier, a feeling Robert Yates Racing teammate Dale Jarrett can sympathize with.

“I certainly understand a little bit about what Ricky has gone through (the last couple of years) and how much he’s enjoying it,” Jarrett said. “Even though Ricky had won races previous to coming to Robert Yates Racing – he had done very well and had a great career – I think now you see a different Ricky Rudd. He’s very relaxed and you can tell he’s having a good time.

“He’s always been a great race driver and I think now he’s able to showcase those talents. It’s actually prolonged our careers to be with Robert Yates Racing because there’s a lot less stress involved when you have the opportunities that Ricky and I have to work with the people we work with.”

Rudd cracked the Top 5 in the points for the first time with a seventh-place run in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in May. He followed that up with a couple of more Top-10 finishes before the Winston Cup circuit moved on to Pocono.

Still frustrated over not having visited victory lane, Rudd won the pole for the Pocono 500, then rallied to overcome Jarrett in the final 24 laps and win the race, his first Winston Cup triumph in nearly three years.

“The best thing about winning is that you don’t have to explain why you ran second or third or finished last,” Rudd said after the race. “It was just a tremendous day for not only myself, but we’ve got a lot of tremendous Ricky Rudd supporters and Robert Yates/Texaco supporters that this victory is for. It’s just a great day for Robert Yates Racing.”

Rudd continued to hound Jarrett for the second spot in the points and finally got past him with an 11th-place run in his return to Pocono, but a 39th-place finish at Indianapolis proved costly, followed up by a 42nd-place run at Michigan two weeks later, giving Gordon a healthy cushion in the championship race.

Five straight top-seven finishes, including a second victory at Richmond in September, kept Rudd close, but it just wasn’t to be.

“There was a point where we were running right there with Jeff, and then we had a couple of bad races and all of a sudden we’re more than 200 points behind,” Rudd said. “That might have been OK if, say Jeff was having a year like he did last year (in 2000, when he finished ninth in the points).

“But that just wasn’t going to fly this year. He and that team were just too strong. And then we had some troubles and a couple more guys snuck by us there at end of the year. It was a very good year, but it just wasn’t good enough to win a championship.”

And to top things off, there was the pit-road accident involving Ward Burton and three of Rudd’s crew members. Two came out with minor injuries, but tire changer Bobby Burrell suffered head injuries and remained in a Miami hospital for a few days.

Burrell has improved since, but the incident certainly weighed heavily on Rudd’s mind and the minds of his team members. The following week he finished 35th at Atlanta, and closed out the season with a 12th-place run at New Hampshire to fall to fourth in the Winston Cup standings behind Gordon, Tony Stewart and Sterling Marlin.

A disappointing close to the season, for sure, but hope for another chance at it in 2002 springs eternal.

“Ricky and I have another year together under our belt, and that’s only going to be beneficial for us next year,” said Rudd’s crew chief, Michael “Fatback” McSwain. “We all know each other now and we’re all pretty laid back. We’re out there having fun, and having a good time is what it’s all about. I know we can only get better, and getting better perhaps means bringing a championship to this team next year.”

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