Rudd, Texaco shining brightly again
By Marty Smith

NEW YORK (Dec. 4, 2000) In the latter stages of the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season, Ricky Rudd reluctantly accepted Robert Yates' proposal to sell his self-owned operation and drive the coveted No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford, whose once bright-shining star had begun to fizzle after several subpar seasons. Twelve top-5s, 19 top-10s and a fifth-place finish in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings later; Rudd has the Texaco star gleaming yet again.

Although Rudd posted his finest season in recent memory, he was unable to do what Robert Yates Racing predecessors Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan made customary - put the star in Victory Lane. No driver was more due when the season concluded.

Rudd was arguably the most dominant driver on the circuit during the second half of the year, having posted 11 top-10s in the final 17 races, including a runner-up finish at Michigan and a month-long stretch that included three third-place runs and fourth-place finish. That enabled him to finish among the top-5 in the championship standings for the first time since 1994, and just the second time since 1991.

"As far as the points go, I couldn't be happier with this new team," Rudd said. "I thought going into the season that a top-10 would have been nice, so finishing fifth exceeds my expectations."

Although Rudd failed to win in NASCAR 2000, making him the only such driver among the top-10, it's not as if he wasn't close. On several instances Rudd checked out on the field, only to be bitten by the bad luck bug.

Rudd led the second Michigan race with 23 laps to go, and appeared poised to hold off Bobby Labonte en route to the checkers. Then, Robby Gordon spun on lap 178, enabling Rusty Wallace to gain several positions.

Wallace had taken four tires to Rudd and Labonte's two on the final stop, forcing him well back in the field. But once the caution flew and he caught up, it was academic. Wallace quickly disposed of both drivers and went on to his third win of the year.

That was just the beginning of Rudd's frustrations. At the fall Charlotte affair, Rudd was dominating when the caution flew for debris on the track with 24 laps to go. No caution, Rudd wins. He wound up third.

It didn't stop there. Rudd had taken control in the waning stages of the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix late in the year, but his dreams were dashed yet again. On lap 294 with Rudd leading, Mike Bliss plowed into Rick Mast on the backstretch, right in front of Rudd. Rudd plowed into Bliss' Pontiac, effectively ending his day with a 37th-place finish.

Despite the frustration, Rudd is well aware that he's got the chance of a lifetime with RYR. His career had fallen stagnant over the past few years. In '99, his 16-year streak with at least one victory was halted. He finished a career-worst 31st in the points. That was the low point of a steady decline. In '97, he finished outside the top-10 for the first time since 1988. In '98, he was 22nd.

Now, after one year with Yates he's back to fifth and has championship aspirations.

The Texaco star is shining brightly yet again, for sure.