Gordon checks rearview mirror

Auto racing: With 10 races to go, the Winston Cup points leader knows if he lets up, Ricky Rudd has a shot to blow by him for the drivers' championship.

Auto Racing

September 23, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. - As Jeff Gordon nestles down in his driver's seat today in the 24th spot in the lineup, he can look way up the track and see Ricky Rudd's rear bumper.

It is not a sight he wants to get used to.

With 10 races to go, Gordon is the Winston Cup points leader going into the MBNA Cal Ripken 400, but his lead has slipped to just 222 points over Rudd.

"Another bad finish like we had in Richmond will pull a lot more drivers into the championship hunt," said Gordon, who finished 36th there.

"I've been telling everyone the race for the championship isn't over yet. We have to stay focused on what our team is doing and not worry about the others. A win like we had in June here would be ideal in getting back on track."

Rudd, who is starting fourth, won in Richmond and has a team that has come together over the last 18 months. Now, all he has to do is look in the Winston Cup history books for inspiration.

Richard Petty overcame a 155-point gap with 10 races to go in 1979 to win his last title. Darrell Waltrip won his third title in 1985 by wiping out a 206-point deficit with eight races left. And the late Alan Kulwicki trailed Bill Elliott by 278 points with six races left in 1992 and ended up winning the championship by 10 points.

"To be here, driving for Robert Yates, at this time in my career is a story-book situation," Rudd said yesterday. "I know 222 is a big number and if neither of us has any trouble, well, there's not much to say. But this is racing and I don't know anybody who can say they're not going to have any problems the rest of the season.

"So, we have plenty of time, especially if he has another major problem."

Rudd, 45, has been racing in the Winston Cup series for 25 years and has earned respect from the competition. In 1998, he ran his streak of winning at least one race in each season to a record 16 straight years. He is known as a clean competitor, but also as a man with a short fuse once his temper is lit.

Still, experience has taught him to keep control and he demonstrated that two weeks ago in Richmond, where driver Kevin Harvick hit him from behind so hard that, without a great, skillful effort, Rudd would have been sitting in the infield grass.

Instead, he recovered control of his car and went after Harvick - who had taken the lead - with controlled intent. When Rudd caught up, he tapped Harvick just enough to move him up the race track and then took the lead and won for the second time this season.

Rusty Wallace, who at the start of this season thought he could be the man to challenge for a second championship, has been observing this title chase and seems to be in Rudd's corner.

"Jeff has the best shot because he has a 200-point cushion," Wallace said. "But every time you think Jeff is going to drive away from everyone, he wrecks. Ricky has been real steady, and he's gotten a bit aggressive, too. You can tell he's a man chasing a championship.

"I think people, generally, are ready for a new champion and I think if Ricky wins it, it would make a lot of people happy."

Not the least of which would be Rudd and his crew chief, Michael McSwain.

"I don't have another 25 or 26 years to do this," Rudd said. "It would be nice to sit back and say we won a championship. I've been trying to do this my entire career. When I started my own team, I thought I had a plan to get it done.

"The first year, we finished fourth in points and I thought we were ahead of schedule. But other teams saw how good the guys on my team were and they started cherry-picking my team. I didn't have the money to pay them to keep them and that meant I had to rebuild almost every year.

"It got to the point where I thought my racing career might run out before I was able to keep a team together long enough to attempt to do what we're trying to do now."

Since midway through last season, Rudd's team has lost only two men and, according to McSwain, the crew chief, that's unheard of.

"It's been pretty neat, watching us all come together," McSwain said. "We took the team that Ricky owned and the team that was with Robert's 28 car and meshed them together."

What they did was take two Top 25 teams and mold them into one of the top two teams. Now, Rudd is determined to do his best to make it the No. 1 team.

NOTES: NASCAR has turned over all of its advertising spots during today's race to the Red Cross for ads on its disaster relief fund. NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter said the sanctioning body also will make "a financial contribution to one of the charities in the future, when it becomes clear where it will do the most good" in the on-going relief effort.

In the MBNA.com 200 Busch Grand National race, Jeff Green survived a caution-filled race. He averaged 107.591 mph in his Nestle Toll House Ford. ... Maryland's Dion Ciccarelli made an early exit because of a crash and finished 35th in his Shamrockrelo.com Ford.

Dover today

What: NASCAR Winston Cup MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400

When: 1 p.m.

Where: Dover (Del.) Downs International Speedway

Tickets: Single seats only. Call 800-441-RACE (7223)

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