Rudd's Relief Role Yields 25th at Dover
Stewart Turns Over Wheel to NASCAR Veteran on Lap 38 of 400
Veteran NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd drove the No. 20 POWERade/Home Depot Chevrolet to a respectable 25th place finish in Sunday's Neighborhood Excellence 400 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway after taking over for regular driver Tony Stewart. Stewart, who sustained a fractured right scapula from an accident in last Sunday's Nextel Cup race at Charlotte (N.C.), turned the driving chores over to Rudd on lap 38 of the 400-lap race.
"I feel like I got beat up," said Stewart from atop the team's pit box as Rudd piloted his orange and black Chevrolet. "We did what we had to do there. It was a lot longer run than we were hoping for. I'm glad we got the caution when we did."
The plan for the day was for Stewart to start the race and then turn the wheel over to Rudd upon the first caution, but that didn't come until lap 37 when Tony Raines spun off turn four.
Once pit road was open, Stewart drove toward his stall. With his helmet off, he quickly flicked away his seatbelts upon stopping in the No. 20 team's pit box. Car chief Jason Shapiro pulled Stewart from the car while mechanic Scott Geerts helped place Rudd in Stewart's place. In less than 52 seconds - the time crew chief Greg Zipadelli had allotted to ensure the team wouldn't lose a lap during the driver change - Rudd was out of the pits and on the race track ahead of the pace car.
To make sure all his belts were tight, the team called Rudd back to the pits on the following lap. There, the crew also changed right side tires. A four-tire stop was planned, but the time wasn't available. In order to stay on the lead lap, Rudd had to go.
"It's hard to explain to people how hard it is to get out of your own car," said Stewart. "This is the one part of the week I cherish more than anything. It's not a very fun way to spend the day. Ricky has done an awesome job all weekend for us, and if I can sit up here and do something to help, then that's what I'm going to do."
The mismatched set of tires - new right side rubber and old left side rubber - proved fitful for Rudd. The car was tight through the track's corners and it only became worse while in traffic.
A pit stop for four fresh tires would be a big help.
While under caution on lap 116, Rudd pitted. A spring rubber was pulled from the left rear spring to help fix the tight handling condition while four fresh tires and full tank of fuel were also added. Once the jack dropped, Rudd motored away, ready to race on a matched set of tires.
Matched tires worked well when Stewart was driving, as he came from last in the 43-car field to 25th before the driver change. After the driver change, Rudd had the same challenge.
He started deep in the field at 37th, and like Stewart, picked his way toward the front. Rudd cracked the top-25 on lap 112, and despite a torrid pace set by the leaders, he continued his forward charge.
By lap 146 Rudd was 20th, despite a lack of grip when exiting the corners.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 200, and even when going a lap down to race leader Jeff Burton on lap 203, Rudd still had his eyes set on a top-10 finish.
Rudd made his pit stop on lap 208. A turn of wedge in the left rear corner, four new tires and a full fuel cell gave Rudd all the tools he needed to regain his lap.
But NASCAR threw a wrench into Rudd's toolbox.
Too fast exiting pit road was NASCAR's call, and just like that, Rudd was another lap down.
"We came down pit road and left with the traffic and I'm the only guy that gets called back in for speeding, so that's real disappointing," said Rudd. "I think we had a top-10 finish. We just couldn't get it.
"I was running with the No. 26 (Jamie McMurray) most of the race, came in, pitted with him and left with him. We got caught speeding and he didn't. I'm real disappointed.
"Part of me says that we went out there and salvaged a finish, but the racer in me says that we didn't get it done. I feel like I let these guys down a little bit, but we'll move on and hopefully Tony will be back next week."
While Rudd was unsatisfied with the outcome, crew chief Greg Zipadelli knew Rudd's presence helped the team through what could've been a disastrous weekend.
"I really appreciate Ricky stepping in here," said Zipadelli. "He did a great job. He's a class act and a lot of fun to work with. My guys did a good job. I'm proud of them. We've got a car that's going home 25th. It's not what we wanted, but it's in one piece. We lost a little more than we'd hoped, but overall it was still a decent day for us."
By starting at Dover, Stewart was credited with all of the points garnered by Rudd's 25th place finish. As a result, Stewart dropped only one spot in the championship point standings to fifth, 293 markers arrears series leader Jimmie Johnson.
"This was one of those days where we had to take what we could get," said Stewart. "It wasn't what we wanted by any means, but you don't ever want to get out of the car either. I think Ricky did a great job. You know, for not being in the car all year, I thought Ricky did an awesome job all day. The guys on the crew did a good job of getting me out and getting him in there and getting back underway. It wasn't the day we wanted, but I think everybody did a good job."
Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates - Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley - finished 11th and 42nd, respectively. Hamlin picked up one spot to climb to 11th in points, while Yeley dropped three positions to 27th.
Matt Kenseth scored his 12th career Nextel Cup victory and his second of the season by winning the Neighborhood Excellence 400. McMurray finished second, while Kevin Harvick, Burton and Kyle Busch secured the rest of the top-five. Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., comprised the rest of the top-10.
The next event on the Nextel Cup schedule is the June 11 Pocono 500 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. The race begins at 2:10 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FOX.