Race 7: NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville - September 27, 1998
One of these, of course, was Winston Cup racing, so Miles and I watched in our upstairs television room the first race that was on when we returned: the NAPA AutoCare 500 at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped oval in Martinsville, Virginia. Although we did not see the beginning of the event, it was turning into a great race for our drivers Sterling Marlin and Ricky Rudd.
In the scorching Virginia sun, Marlin was keeping his Chevrolet firmly in front as Rudd stayed in his sights, struggling with a scalding hot car caused by a failed air conditioning system. This problem probably would not have been so bad on other days, yet on this day the air temperature at the track was above ninety degrees, even higher inside all forty-three cars. Each of the many caution periods did nothing to appease the intense heat Rudd and the others were experiencing. Just when it looked like Marlin was going to win the event, leading more laps than any other driver, something in his car broke, abruptly ending his day as he headed to the pits.
Now it was Rudd’s turn to shine.
Rudd took full advantage of his remaining pit stops, taking on ice and drinking water while shunning offers to have a replacement driver run the rest of the race for him. Despite persistent challenges from championship point leaders Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Rudd somehow managed to hold them off to take the well-deserved victory. When Rudd came out of the car in victory lane, he immediately collapsed from exhaustion, receiving oxygen and ice at the site from infield doctors as well as from ESPN’s trackside reporter and part-time doctor Dr. Jerry Punch. Rudd said a few words from the ground before regaining his footing, trophy in hand. It was both an exciting and inspirational win for me as it was also the first time I saw one of my favorite driver’s victories unfold.
In an equally happy footnote, hard-luck driver Rich Bickle was interviewed soon after the celebration in victory lane, having earned his career-best finish. Bickle had been struggling for nearly a decade to gain consistency in the Winston Cup Series, moving from team to team before early 1998, when he replaced an injured Greg Sacks to drive car number ninety-eight. Bickle had gained mediocre results with this team, owned by racing legend Cale Yarborough, when he surprised everyone by qualifying fourth at Martinsville. After he somehow remained in the fourth position when the checkered flag waved, a weary yet delighted Bickle declared to reporters: "This is like winning to me!"