INDIANAPOLIS -- Ricky Rudd roars into the fourth turn of Indianapolis Motor Speedway at about a million miles an hour, or is that just his brain moving a million miles an hour? Rudd's crew chief, Jim Long, is yammering in his ear, telling him he has this race won, telling him to "think about all that money, pal. Drive your heart out."
And Rudd is driving his heart out. But when he looks in his rearview mirror going into that fourth turn of that last lap and sees Bobby Labonte, his nearest pursuer, too far behind him to challenge, Rudd relaxes and stops listening to his crew chief. He's about to become the newest winner of the 4-year-old Brickyard 400.
Everything is happening in slow-motion now. And Rudd wants to let the window net down so he can wave to all those fans that have created a sea wall of color on both sides of the track. But he's too nervous. He can't get the net loose, yet, somehow, Rudd pushes his arm through a small opening beside the window net and waves as hard as he can all the way down the front straight until he crosses that narrow strip of original brick paving at the start-finish line.
"I enjoyed that drive down the straightaway," Rudd said. "I enjoyed it all the way to the checkered flag. It's been a long time since I've done that."
Not that Rudd hasn't experienced winning. He's won 18 times in his 22-year career. And he has won at least once each of 15 consecutive years. The only other driver to do that is seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
But when Rudd won yesterday by 2 1/2 car lengths over Labonte at an average speed of 130.828 mph, it was winning at Indianapolis that made it special. It was also important because it was his second win of the season and the first time he has won twice in one year since 1987.
"It's kind of hard to put the feelings I have into words," said Rudd, from Chesapeake, Va. "All those races I've won have a little special meaning. But this race here is just unbelievable."
Rudd, 40, started seventh and hung around the Top 10 all afternoon, staying out of trouble while others entertained.
First it was pole-sitter Ernie Irvan, leading the first 39 laps and setting a record for leading the most laps at the start of this race.
Jeff Gordon took over from there, having rallied from 24th, and finally he and defending race-winner Dale Jarrett put on an old-fashioned show, exchanging the lead several times in spectacular fashion before they were both forced to pit for fuel while the race was under caution with 13 laps to go.
It was then that Rudd and Bobby Labonte opted to stay on the 2.5-mile track. They had pitted back on Lap 114 of this 160-lap race. While all the experts insisted no one could go the distance from there, both Rudd and Labonte listened to their crew chiefs and gambled.
"We were going to win or run out of gas trying," Rudd said.
It was the biggest payday of Rudd's career, as he celebrated in victory lane with a check for $571,000, -- first place of a Winston Cup-record purse of $4.965 million. And, it made for a wonderful day for the quiet Virginian who owns his own team and takes his best shot every Sunday against the two- and-three-car Goliaths that are dominating the sport.
"The best car doesn't always win," said Jarrett, who drives for the two-car Robert Yates team and finished third. "We've had the best car quite a few times this year. But Ricky got better fuel mileage. You don't have to race side-by-side all the time to have good racing. I think it's just as interesting to see a guy work his way up through the field or see a guy use his mind and work out a strategy that can win.
"Both Ricky and Bobby worked the fuel angle. My team goes for power. It would be hard for me to conserve enough fuel -- I couldn't have coasted and conserved that much fuel. [But] fuel mileage is part of racing, too. There are no set rules. They did their homework and won the race the way they could and I think everyone out there is happy to see Ricky Rudd win if they can't."
When Rudd came around on the cool-down lap, every team on pit road was cheering. And when he got in the convertible for the victory ride around the track, all 320,000 fans in the stands stood and cheered.
"When I was a kid, I raced go-carts and my dream was to go on and run Indy cars, because I was really too far north [Virginia] for stock car racing," said Rudd, who won the 1971 national go-cart title here at Indianapolis Raceway Park. "I thought, one day, I'd race here, but I never thought it would be in a stock car and I had no idea I would come and win."
And then Rudd's serious face creased in a smile as he tried to describe the feeling he had after this victory.
"I don't know," he said. "There is something about having grandstands on both sides of the racetrack. There is just walls of people -- you had people with Jeff Gordon shirts on, Earnhardt shirts, some Rudd shirts. But they are all just race fans and they are cheering as you ride by. It's pretty neat."