Race 10: Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond - September 8, 2001
Ricky Rudd had been having a great two years driving the famous Texaco Havoline car, yet three wins in 2001 have just barely slipped his grasp due to late-race shoving matches on the track. Besides his losses to Dale Jarrett at Martinsville in April and to Jeff Gordon at Michigan in June, Rudd was again bumped out of the lead by Jarrett with only four laps to go at New Hampshire’s oval in July, causing him to fall back to third behind Jarrett and Gordon. Rudd is a very patient driver and has won many of his races, including 2001's at Pocono, on the "slow and steady" method: he runs his car the hardest only at the end of the race.
Though this method worked out well when Rudd’s competitors were like him, I was wondering if Rudd could still stay competitive against today’s more aggressive drivers such as Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon. Gordon was still leading the Winston Cup points standings coming into the event at Richmond’s three-quarter mile oval by a whopping 342 points over second-place Ricky Rudd. This margin had steadily been on the increase since June when Gordon had picked up four victories and Rudd suffered two costly finishes of thirty-ninth or worse with his Pocono win fading from memory.
Dad, having heard that his Jeff Gordon was on the pole for the night’s race, came upstairs to watch it with Miles and I. As the race began, Jeff Gordon jumped out to a huge lead from the pole position, leading many laps until a caution came out early on. When Gordon fell to third position after pit stops, giving Rusty Wallace the point, Gordon had Sterling Marlin’s Dodge to contend with as the green flag flew.
Then, only thirty-five laps into the race, Sterling Marlin got a great run on the inside of Gordon going down the track’s short backstretch and looked poised to gain the position. Then, it happened. As Gordon fought back on the outside, giving him a slight advantage, Marlin’s Dodge slipped up and clipped Gordon’s left-rear. Gordon’s back end suddenly swung around until it faced the outside wall, the car slamming into the outside barrier with its left side as Rudd drove past the scene in the top ten. "Thank you, Marlin!" Miles and I cheered. Dad, on the other hand, was frustrated, saying that Marlin should have backed off sooner. Gordon then drove his damaged car back to the track’s garage area, the Richmond crowd cheering over the sounds of Gordon’s sheetmetal dragging along pit road.
As barbaric as that may sound, I must make the distinction that Miles and I, like some other fans, do not wish harm upon drivers such as Gordon whose wins we do not enjoy; that would be going too far. Instead, we just hope that their cars are harmed! For example, in the case of Gordon’s Richmond wreck, I was pleased not just that Gordon’s car was out of competition for the win, but also that Gordon himself was able to race another day. Although I may label these drivers as "enemies," I instead treat them as the challenge that I hope my drivers will be able to conquer by finishing ahead of them on the track. It is most likely for this reason that the drivers I support usually win less often than these "enemies," whose function has always been as essential as that of my favorite drivers to me.
Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd still stayed in the top ten through the first half of the race, but a sudden turn of events abruptly ended Marlin’s day. During a round of pit stops just before the halfway point, Sterling Marlin had just had work completed on his car, but was blocked by a car pitting in front of him. Thus, Marlin backed up his car quickly in order to lose as little time as possible, but then it refused to go forward again. As the crew frantically looked under Marlin’s Dodge while the driver continued to struggle with the clutch, the problem was clear. Marlin had broke the transmission. The dejected crew pushed Marlin’s car back to the garage area, attempting to fix it while Gordon’s Chevrolet was still having sheetmetal work done nearby. Understandably, Miles was very frustrated by this turn of events as Marlin had a great run going in the event. Marlin was third in points going into the day’s race, gaining points on Rudd for the runner-up spot. As the points leaders were all having problems, I was reluctant to think of what may happen to Rudd as the laps wound down!
Throughout all of the earlier events, Rusty Wallace dominated the race, leading more than half of the laps. Even so, Ricky Rudd was not far behind, hovering around the top five as the field continued to dwindle. Although I viewed Richmond at the time as an unusually tedious short track race due to its lack of intense competition, this one was unusually spontaneous. As Wallace continued to lead, Rudd tried on many occasions to pass the leader on the inside, yet Wallace’s blue Ford always gained the advantage on the outside. When a caution came out with about thirty laps to go, Wallace led the field onto pit road, changed the air pressure in one of his tires for better handling, and drove back onto the track in the lead with Ricky Rudd, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Dale Jarrett rounding out the top five. As the field restarted with twenty-seven laps to go, the field wondered if they would be able to pass Wallace’s dominant Ford. Still thinking Rudd could pull off the win, I distinctly remember saying to Miles in those last moments of the race: "Right now I’m just hoping Wallace blows a tire." I had no idea what was about to happen.
Just three laps after the final restart as Wallace led the field onto the backstretch by about a car length, Wallace’s car wiggled and slid sideways toward the inside wall. Although Wallace regained control of his car without spinning, he had fallen all the way to fourth position, giving Rudd the lead. Harvick was right behind Rudd at the time Wallace slid, so close that he rear-ended Rudd as they drove past. Although neither lost control, a small piece of metal on Rudd’s rear bumper had been dislodged was now dangling from underneath his bumper. I couldn’t believe it! Rudd was leading the race!
The final moments were even more intense. As Harvick continued to stay directly behind Rudd, at times coming ominously close to his rear end, the announcers were dissecting the replay of Wallace’s slide, saying that Rudd caused Wallace to lose control. Also, they wondered if the piece of debris dangling from Rudd’s car would cause him to be penalized. As word from trackside officials cleared Rudd of the Wallace incident and was not penalized for his car’s debris, Harvick stayed right on Rudd’s rear, following his exact path along the track.
With eighteen laps to go, Harvick attempted to get beneath Rudd’s car on the entrance to the backstretch, but tapped Rudd’s left rear. In an instant, Rudd’s front end abruptly swung towards the inside of the track, headed on a direct course for the inside wall, when the rear end miraculously straightened out, preventing a spin as he kept on his way. Although he lost the lead, Rudd still managed to hold off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for second as they entered turn three. As Harvick began to pull away from the Texaco Havoline car, his first laps led that night, I couldn’t believe that Rudd was able to save that car! At the same time, I was very angry at Harvick as I felt his contact was unprovoked and that Earnhardt, Jr. was now challenging Rudd for second. Then, unexpectedly, Rudd started to pull away from Earnhardt, Jr. There were seventeen laps to go and a margin of a little more than a second to make up. Could Rudd still make it?
Now, a furious Rudd was flying around the track. The announcers measured the speed each car was running as they crossed the starting line, finding that Rudd’s were consistently quicker than Harvick’s. While the "slow and steady" method still held true in Rudd’s driving as he followed Harvick’s path, one could easily tell that Rudd was on a mission! As Rudd closed to within a car length of the leader, Harvick wiggled slightly on the backstretch, but managed to hang on to the lead and keep his half-second margin over Rudd. Even though Rudd briefly lifted off the gas pedal upon seeing Harvick wrestle his car, he was still determined to get that lead.
Then, as the two cars entered turn three to get the signal for five laps to go, Rudd bumped Harvick’s rear bumper, causing the leader to slide up the track slightly into the outer groove. When this happened, Rudd swung underneath the leader, mashing the gas to retake the lead on the inside just as the two crossed the line. Harvick repositioned himself to follow Rudd as best he could, but the damage had been done. Earnhardt, Jr. had suddenly caught up to Harvick and again looked to be ready to take the runner-up spot. As the two raced for position, Rudd pulled away from the pack as Harvick asserted his position.
I could not believe what I had just seen! I thought that the contact Harvick made with Rudd would have damaged his car too much to rally back to the front, but I certainly had underestimated him! Rudd regained his composure, running a "slow and steady" pace as Harvick continued to struggle with Earnhardt, Jr. Soon after the race, I found out that the car Rudd was driving that night was the exact same one he won with at Pocono months earlier. When Rudd crossed the finish line, earning his first win at Richmond since 1984, I cheered just as hard as the crowd did in Richmond! "I have been waiting to see if he could steal one (a win)!" I said as Rudd spun his car in the infield grass in celebration. I had never seen anyone, let alone Rudd, come back from such a setback so late in the race to take the win! It was a thrill like none other!
Rusty Wallace was still able to finish fifth; his car’s wiggling with twenty-four laps to go was found to be a direct result of the air pressure adjustment made during the last pit stop.
As Rudd climbed out of his car in victory lane, waving to the ecstatic crowd, a reporter came up to him to ask how he managed to keep his car from spinning out after Harvick’s shunt.
At first, he feigned arrogance, saying "Well, I’m so doggone good. . .!," but the mild-mannered Rudd then said "To be real honest with you, I don’t know how I saved it. I was looking to see where I was going to hit the fence and it just straightened out. I guess the Good Lord was looking out for us." It truly was a miracle that Rudd was able to win that race, perhaps the greatest one in the history of the sport.
Compounding the excitement of the win was that Rudd was my "Pick of the Week," unexpectedly making both Miles’ record and mine 1-1 headed into the next race at New Hampshire! While Rudd was in victory lane, Miles’ pick, Terry Labonte, crashed hard into the outside wall late in the race, finishing thirty-eighth behind the wall. Labonte was okay. In addition, the Richmond track on which Rudd had won was only a few miles away from his hometown in Chesapeake, Virginia. As a result of Jeff Gordon’s crash and thirty-sixth place finish, Rudd gained an amazing 120 points on Gordon, bringing Rudd to 222 points out of the lead. Sterling Marlin, as a result of his transmission problems, finished thirty-second and fell from third to fifth in the point standings. Both Marlin and Gordon, despite the damage sustained to their cars, managed to finish the race. To top it off, Ricky Rudd would be celebrating his forty-fifth birthday on Wednesday, September 12, three days after Jerry Nadeau’s thirty-first.
It was truly a race to remember.