ATLANTA -- Little has changed for Ricky Rudd in the past 20 years. He's still racing, he's still running in the lead pack, and he's still fighting for his own place in stock car racing's consciousness.
His career once hinged on a single race. He finished fourth at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C., that afternoon, but the fight to prove himself never has diminished.
Rudd built a car from scratch in his garage near the speedway. His wife, Linda, worked in the speedway's ticket office to pay the bills. Every dollar, every minute, every dream the couple had went into a race at Lowe's on Oct. 5, 1980. He sat on the outside pole, then finished fourth in the main event.
''The next Monday morning, the phone was ringing off the hook,'' Rudd said. ''Everyone wanted me to drive for them. I went from nothing to nearly everything.''
He's won 20 races in the past 20 years, including a run of at least one victory in 16 consecutive years. The string was broken a year ago after the team he and his wife owned for six years lost its longtime sponsor, Tide. Two months later, Rudd decided to close the doors.
Now the second driver in Robert Yates' two-car team, Rudd has started to fashion the kind of results that have taken 20 years to find. He came close to winning the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship in 1991 while driving for Rick Hendrick, but he never really seemed content.
''Thinking back to last year, I have to wonder what I must have been thinking about when I told Robert (Yates) I needed time to think about his offer,'' Rudd said. ''It's nice to be where you're wanted. It's nice to be where everyone works toward the same goals. These are the best race cars I've ever driven.''
Rudd is doing the things necessary to win races. He's finished no worse than 11th in each of the past 10 races including five top-five finishes leading up to Sunday's Pop Secret Popcorn 400. He's fifth in the points standings with $2.14 million in earnings.
And while he's the only driver ranked in the top 10 without a victory this year, he and Yates both know it hasn't been from a lack of effort.
''At Yates Racing there really is no weak point, and that's the mark of a championship-quality team,'' Rudd said. ''There really isn't a weak link in the chain. As a driver, that's nice because you get excited about coming to every race track. Everyone wants to have a chance to sit in equipment that's capable of winning week in and week out. That's what I've got now.''
Rudd now drives the Yates' most famous car, the No. 28 Ford that has had the late Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Dale Jarrett as drivers. Allison was killed in a helicopter crash at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 1993. Irvan was forced out of the sport after two near-fatal crashes at the Michigan Speedway. Irwin was killed while driving for another team earlier this year at the New Hampshire International Speedway. Jarrett has since moved over to Yates' other team, the No. 88 Ford that carried him to the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship.
''People think of the 28 teams as Davey Allison and Robert Yates,'' Rudd said. ''That's what I still think about.''
At 44 and clearly rejuvenated by the opportunity, Rudd said he will try to make his own niche in the history of the car.
''I think in a lot of ways we're way ahead of schedule,'' he said. ''If I have a win or two slip in there before the year is out, which is a real possibility, probably the season has gone better than expectations. Right now we're knocking on the door for a top-five finish. Before the season started, we predicted maybe a top 10. We'd take a top five. Really, we're not that far out of second place. That's actually reachable. We really had no idea we could be that competitive in the points.''
Rudd no longer has to build his own car. His career no longer hinges solely on the next race. He doesn't have to court and coddle sponsors. All he has to do is drive a great race car and, for the first time in 20 years, have fun.
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