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I still remember the scene. There Ricky Rudd was, so exhausted he could barely stand following an unforgiving Sunday afternoon. 500 laps at Martinsville had brought one of NASCAR’s legends to his knees.
Good thing he won.
The day was September 27th, 1998, and Rudd had just put a silver lining on a dismal season by coming out of nowhere to take the checkered flag in his home state of Virginia. How he even got to the finish was the bigger surprise, though; after a cooling device in his helmet malfunctioned early in the race, Rudd was subjected to blistering heat that turned his body into a pile of burned-up mush.
But NASCAR’s Iron Man wouldn’t even think of getting out of that racecar. With a chance to extend a special streak – Rudd had gone 15 straight years with at least one Cup victory – he knew this was his last best chance to sneak away with one, in a year in which his little independent team was overwhelmed by the resources of superteams like Hendrick and Roush.
Oh, the foreshadowing of the multi-car dominance to come; but on this day, it was an independent’s time to shine, as Rudd led 198 laps in besting the seemingly unbeatable Jeff Gordon. The Rainbow Warrior had a career-high 13 wins that season; but the way the No. 10 car was driven that day, it was going to be hell or high water for Gordon to raise that total by one more.
“I’ve got blisters all the way down my back, but I told [crew chief] Bill Ingle, if we get that win I’ll enjoy Monday from the hospital bed,” Rudd said in Victory Lane, lying flat while oxygen got pumped into his body.
Looking back, that moment stands so poignant in the fabric of Nextel Cup history. It’s the last time a Cup Series owner/driver took himself to Victory Lane, perhaps the last time that independent dream will ever come true. A single-car operation, Rudd did things his way with a loyal sponsor, one who’s since been left behind due to the sport’s skyrocketing costs, along with an underdog mentality that endeared him to a generation’s worth of fans. Back then, handling and hard work could overcome horsepower; nowadays, that can’t even get you to the starting grid without the right aerodynamic package to go with it.
What’s more, the glory of the past can only do so much in the present. Rudd’s body betrays him now, a separated shoulder he might have gutted out in the old days now forcing the 51-year-old to wonder whether he should even run this paperclip track of guts and glory a 55th and final time. No doubt, the possibility he’ll never race again here must tear deep into the heart of a working man’s soul; the hard-nosed facility embodies anything and everything about him, why he stuck around longer than he ever imagined when he entered the sport a fresh-faced rookie in 1975.
32 years later, Rudd stands on the precipice of walking away, watching as the sport he loves stands perilously towards a cliff of its own. That’s why you can’t help but hope for him to get in the car one last time here; of all the race tracks remaining, there’s but a slight chance Rudd could still win – he finished 13th in the spring. In a year where so many have lost so much faith, just the mere fact of the veteran contending would be enough to bring the fans to their feet.
So, Rudd needs to run here one more time, for old time’s sake. Truth be told, I’m not yet ready for another link to NASCAR’s past begin to slip so suddenly away.
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