Rudd Getting Out Of Rut

Did anyone really think it would take six races into the 2002 season for Robert Yates Racing to get its first Top 5 in a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race?

It’s a fact virtually no one could have predicted for a pair of drivers expected to make a strong run for the Winston Cup championship.

But then it’s a fact that’s undisputable. Ricky Rudd’s third-place finish in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway is the best performance turned in by either Rudd or Dale Jarrett this season. It’s only the second top-10 finish between the two, following a seventh-place run for Jarrett at Las Vegas earlier this month.

Rudd’s 12th-place finish at Darlington the previous week was his best of the season, so things are beginning to look up a bit for him and his team. He’s currently 14th in the Winston Cup points standings, but already 249 points behind leader Sterling Marlin.

“This just shows we’ve turned around a little bit,” Rudd said. “That was a brand new car today, it was untested. We tested at Bristol in race trim only. But it did a great job. The car was good. I think we’re back on the right track.”

Rudd started Sunday’s race from the 20th position, but kept out of the many accidents and made a strong run at the end of the 500-lap event. While many other cars will need some repair work a the race that saw 14 caution flags for 101 laps, that won’t be the case for the No. 28 Havoline Taurus.

“We hardly got a dent on it (his car),” Rudd said, “which is, I think, a first for me at Bristol.”

Last year, it was the Roush Racing teams who struggled on the track, a mystery few could figure. The Roush organization has it turned around this season, having already won two of the first six events of the season after Kurt Busch’s triumph on Sunday.

Prior to Sunday, however, Yates’ teams haven’t even been close to winning a race this season. Jarrett has finished worse than 40th twice and 29th or worse in three of the six races. He’s 24th in the Winston Cup standings, one position below Jimmy Spencer, who didn’t even qualify for the Daytona 500.

Rudd’s struggles are particularly puzzling after a 2001 campaign in which he came back to break a long winless drought with a pair of victories and finished fourth in the points standings.

He began the 2002 season by getting in an accident and finishing 38th in the Daytona 500. He has followed with finishes of 18th at Rockingham, 13th at Las Vegas, 20th at Atlanta, 12th at Darlington and third at Bristol.

Sunday’s Top 5 at Bristol was encouraging in other ways for Rudd and his team.

“This is not an aerodynamic track (Bristol Motor Speedway),” Rudd said. “It’s all about handling and chassis. At least we know what area we’re off on now. We know we’ve gotta work on the aero package right now. And we’re good on chassis. That showed in this race.

“This is exactly what our team needed. We brought a brand new car here and it was just a matter of staying patient and getting good track position at the end. We had a really good car, our pit strategy was outstanding, and the guys did a great job on pit stops. It was a very good day for everyone in this Havoline program.”

The Winston Cup Series will take a week off before heading to Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung/RadioShack 500. Jarrett is the defending champion of that race, while Rudd has only one top-five finish at the 1.5-mile, Bruton Smith-owned facility (in 1997).

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