Rudd claims Pocono 500

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 18, 2001

The Associated Press


Monday, June 18, 2001

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LONG POND, Pa. – Ricky Rudd once was a serious contender for the NASCAR title. But that was 10 years ago, when he finished second to the late Dale Earnhardt.

Now that Rudd’s 88-race losing streak is over, and he is beginning to finish near the front on a consistent basis, he certainly has the look of a driver to be reckoned with. And he sounded like one Sunday after beating Jeff Gordon in the Pocono 500.

”I truly think it’s a championship team effort,” Rudd said. ”There are no guarantees that we can beat Gordon or our teammate, Dale Jarrett, but I think we’re definitely going to be in the thick of things for a while.”

But with Gordon coming fast at the end of the race, it looked like Rudd’s record of futility would reach 89. But Rudd outlasted Gordon.

The victory was hardly uneventful, however, and his premonition of defeat nearly became reality.

”I knew something had to go wrong,” Rudd said.

It did, and could have cost him the race. At the very least, a transmission problem tainted his donut celebration – the one where a driver burns rubber by going in circles.

”I put it in first gear and there was nothing there,” he said. ”I said, ‘Man, everybody I know thinks I’m an idiot because I can’t even do a donut.”’

That wasn’t as serious as when he discovered with 15 laps left that he had no third gear. That’s not good at Pocono, the only oval where drivers shift during each lap.

But Rudd nursed the car to the end for his first victory in nearly 1 1/2 seasons since selling his own team to drive for Robert Yates Racing. It was the first win in four years for the No. 28 car – long a favorite of NASCAR fans because many Hall of Famers have driven it.

”There’s no way I can describe it,” said Michael ”Fatback” McSwain, who got his first victory as a crew chief.

Rudd was relieved to win.

”You don’t have to explain yourself … why you lost,” Rudd said. ”It makes conversation easier on Monday.”

Rudd got his 21st career victory. The 44-year-old driver from Chesapeake, Va., now has won for six car owners. Bobby Allison won Winston Cup races for seven.

It was the first victory for Rudd in 44 starts at Pocono International Raceway, where he has competed since 1977. He is third in the series standings after 15 of 36 races, trailing leader Gordon by 130 points.

Gordon never got close enough to find out if he could catch Rudd in the final laps, but doubted he could have had he closed from the 15-car-length deficit the winner had at the end.

”It’s one thing holding those Yates cars off,” he said. ”It’s another thing trying to pass them.”

Rudd’s Ford led 39 of 200 laps on the 2 1/2-mile triangular-shaped oval to beat the Chevrolet of Gordon by 1.119 seconds. Third was Jarrett, followed by Sterling Marlin in a Dodge and Mark Martin in a Ford.

Gordon, who at one point traded the lead with Jarrett on five straight laps, was sprinting away from the field as the other contenders began pitting under green. But a caution flag waved on lap 121, permitting the field to bunch up behind him.

A week earlier, Gordon won in part because Sterling Marlin lost a big lead the same way.

But Gordon was satisfied with second Sunday.

”The important thing is the streak that keeps getting us more points,” he said. ”We just have to keep the momentum up,”

Gordon pitted on lap 122 as the rest stayed out, and he was shuffled back in the field. A yellow flag on lap 158 forced the final pits stops and cut into Jarrett’s lead.

Jarrett led Rudd and Gordon when the green waved again with 37 laps left and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just in front, trying to stay on the lead lap.

But it was Rudd who passed Jarrett and Earnhardt on lap 177.

”Ricky got off the corner and he was sitting there waiting for the right opportunity,” Jarrett said. ”He knows when the take advantage of situations, and I knew I was toasted right then.”

So did Rudd.

”When two guys get racing side by side, it slows them down 15-20 mph,” he said of his decisive move to the bottom of the track exiting the first turn. ”I looked up and saw daylight.”

Then Gordon got by Earnhardt, and the top three raced together until the end. Gordon passed Jarrett on lap 194, and now leads him by 36 points.

”We had a great race car, and this was a good day for Robert Yates Racing,” Jarrett said. ”We wanted to stay behind Ricky and finish second, but our fuel gauge began to sputter and we had to back down a bit to finish.”