CONCORD, N.C. -- When Ricky Rudd began his streak of consecutive starts on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, he didn't know whether he'd be racing the next week, much less in the next 655 consecutive races.
A fledgling career once based in his father's junkyard blossomed into one of the longest careers on the stock car circuit. Barring anything unexpected, Sunday night's Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway will be Rudd's 656th race without a miss, and he will pass Terry Labonte for first place in the record books. Labonte, who passed Richard Petty for the mark, made 655 starts before being sidelined in 2000.
There were two notable threats to Labonte's streak before it ended: the time when he barrel-rolled six times during the 1984 Busch Class all-star race at Daytona International Speed way and the time when he tore the ligaments in his left knee during The Winston all-star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1988.
But it was an inner ear problem in 2000 that forced Labonte to miss the Brickyard 400 and ended his run.
''We had that wreck at Daytona and after that, I got a little dizzy in the car,'' Labonte said. ''That was a little scary. I went to a bunch of doctors, and they all said it was something in my inner ear and it would go away on its own. But after a couple weeks, I still got dizzy.''
Labonte sought a third opinion and finally found relief. A doctor at Wake Forest University pinpointed the problem and performed a quick procedure that cured it.
While the cure was appreciated, it came too late. A streak that started 21 years earlier had ended.
Records and longevity weren't on Rudd's mind when he got his first full-time ride in 1981 with DiGard Racing. When his streak officially started at Riverside, Calif., in 1981, Prince Charles and Diana Spencer were about to get married, MTV was about to launch an all-video network and Chariots of Fire was about to beat On Golden Pond, Atlantic City, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds for the Oscar for best picture.
''You don't start your career thinking you're going to go out there and do this every week,'' Rudd said. ''Not driving hurt or sick was never a consideration. You did what you have to do.''
Rudd won his ride with DiGard after building his own car and starting on the outside pole and finishing fourth at Lowe's in 1980. He hasn't slowed down since.
His crash at Daytona was vicious. He got a concussion that turned the whites of both eyes blood red. He raced in the Daytona 500 a week later, finishing seventh, and a week after that he won at Richmond, Va.
The crash at Lowe's wasn't as dramatic, but it threatened his ability to drive a week later in the 600-miler at Lowe's.
''My knee was tore up pretty bad, so I went to Indianapolis to see Dr. Terry Trammell,'' Rudd said. ''He's the guy who sews all the feet back on the IndyCar drivers.''
Trammel decided against the surgery that would have sidelined Rudd for a month. Instead, the driver went through a rigorous rehabilitation program that allowed him to maintain his duties behind the wheel.
Both Labonte and Rudd started their careers when money was tight and drivers were more concerned with paying for tires the following week. That kind of commitment and sacrifice, they said, made it easy to drive with pain. It's also a reason why it's not likely the newest generation of drivers will approach Rudd's mark for consecutive starts.
''Some of the young guys have it easier than we did,'' Labonte said. ''My first race, I put the motor in the car myself. Can Jimmie (Johnson) put one in? I don't know. I know Jeff (Gordon) can't.''
Rudd, 45, talked two weeks ago of retirement, citing his displeasure with the sport's preoccupation with marketing younger drivers. Now he's talking about driving another two or three years. If he does that without missing a start, his streak could expand to nearly 800 starts before he quits.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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