It’s common to look for the fairy tale ending in sports. It comes as a natural, learned behavior; one that starts at three years old when we’re told that David beats Goliath, the tortoise beats the hare, and no matter what, everyone lives happily ever after.
That those simple myths don’t always translate into the fabric of human life can be unsettling, to say the least; and when true reality does reveal the downs as well as the ups, the finality of what lies ahead becomes almost painful to watch.
Pain: That word doesn’t do justice to what Ricky Rudd was feeling on a not-so-pleasant Labor Day. Sunday night was supposed to be a celebration of the longevity of Rudd’s success – his 900th career start in the Cup series keeps him in exclusive company with the King, the only men to toil that long behind the wheel in stock car racing’s top level. A certain Hall of Famer, Rudd is busy wrapping up a 31-year career that has seen him win the Brickyard 400, 22 other races, and drive for the likes of Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates, all while setting a NASCAR record for consecutive starts with 788.
But at 51, California instead proved a reminder to the Virginian how retirement looms as a relief, not a stretch. After running mediocre for most of the evening – symptomatic of a season in which a one-time championship contender has finished in the top 10 just once – the driver of the No. 88 Ford found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jeff Gordon made a rare mistake, cars went scrambling, and the next thing Rudd knew, his car was going sideways – and his body was bracing for a 140-mph hit into the outside wall, driver’s side first.
That didn’t go very well. Knocked unconscious, NASCAR’s former Iron Man understands his body is no longer made of steel. With a separated shoulder among the ailments diagnosed, Rudd has said he will likely sit it out for the foreseeable future. Even when he does get back in the seat, it’s doubtful the veteran will be 100% for the handful of races left remaining on the Nextel Cup schedule. Although opportunities still remain for Rudd to pull a miracle, it’s more likely than ever 2007 will be a winless campaign, his last after a one-year sabbatical to think about his future in the sport.
Of course, fans still cling to the dream. The clock ticking, they’ll walk hand-in-hand with the never-say-die Rudd until the last lap of the last race at Homestead, hoping against hope that magic works its way to the No. 88 car one final time. But dreams now find themselves gasping for air, the bubble burst on expectations left unmet. While Rudd has done so much behind the scenes at Yates, immeasurably assisting both the crew and the career of teammate David Gilliland, the history books will forever indicate the cruelness of a stats sheet that says Rudd should have kept himself from coming back.
Over on the other side of Mooresville, a younger man sits on the same sidelines as Rudd, he just doesn’t know he’s there. The two are linked by the aura of imperfect endings; it’s a place where Dale Earnhardt Jr. seems predisposed to inhibit for now, shoved back from the limelight as the newest stock car fairy tale, NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship 2007, gets ready to debut on the national stage. Making the playoffs seemed a foregone conclusion for Junior before the season began; but then again, so did a contract extension with the team his father owned, a natural development all expected but none saw teetering on the verge of collapse.
From there, indecision turned into division turned into divorce. Since the shock of change washed through both DEI and Hendrick Motorsports, Junior’s done a great job of adjusting, and so has his team – even when the rest of us were a step behind. It wasn’t for lack of effort that they won’t win a championship; but then again, if the parts and pieces always held up at just the right times for the No. 8 car, perhaps things could have been put in position to play out differently, no matter how much family squabble got in the way of future success.
But now, barring a Richmond miracle, Junior is out of the playoffs, faced with the humility of playing out the string with a team he’s looming ever closer to leaving behind. It’s nowhere near the happy ending expected; Junior making the Chase, putting forth a strong playoff run and giving credence to the words he spoke after exiting the car Sunday night.
“I would like to think they could run just as good without me,” Junior said of his team. “I would never be able to run this good without them.”
Of course, the irony here is with Hendrick, Junior is expected to run better, much better; that’s why Junior made that choice, and anything less would be a failure far beyond the scale of missing the Chase as a lame-duck driver for an organization clearly in transition. In the future, the No. 8 will be without him and his team will move forward; both will seek success in different places with different people, and life, as we know it, will go on.
Just not with the ending anyone expected, for either Junior or Rudd. Sometimes, It’s a reminder that sometimes, fairy tale endings turn out to really just be a figment of your own imagination.