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Ricky Rudd at brink of NASCAR ironman record
When the 45-year-old racer takes the green flag for the Pontiac Excitement 400, he will match Terry Labonte's record of 655 consecutive Winston Cup starts.
Barring a twist of fate, Rudd will become the stock car sport's new ironman on May 26 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Rudd, who began the streak Jan. 11, 1981, on the now-defunct road course at Riverside International Raceway, said he never gave the record much thought until other people began talking about it.
That doesn't mean he's not proud of it, though.
"I think it says a little bit about your character," Rudd said. "There's plenty of days that I could have sat out of the race car because of an injury or illness or something. I had some days I'd much rather have been laying in a hospital bed than sitting in the race car."
One of those days was in Feb. 19, 1984.
A week earlier, Rudd had survived a wild, tumbling crash at Daytona International Speedway during a preliminary to the Daytona 500. It was his first race for owner Bud Moore, and the rising star was determined not to blow the opportunity to drive for an established winner for the first time.
"I took a trip to the hospital and, really, they wanted to keep me there quite a bit longer than I wanted to stay. I basically checked myself out the next morning," Rudd said.
He ran both the 125-mile qualifying race and the 500-miler with torn cartilage in his ribcage, horribly swollen eyes and, worst of all, severe dizziness when he drove on the high banks of the Daytona track.
"It only affected me where you pull G-loads," he said, smiling. "One eye would go this way and the other eye would go that way. ... It probably wasn't real smart of me to be driving. I basically focused on the back bumper of the car in front of me. It was about all I could see."
Rudd finished seventh.
Labonte, whose 20-year string of races ended in August 2000 after he suffered an inner ear injury in a crash the previous month in Daytona, has a unique appreciation of Rudd's accomplishment.
"I can remember Ricky running at Richmond, Va., after he'd had a terrible accident at Daytona and turned over 10 or 12 times," Labonte said of the 1984 crash. "His eyes were so swollen that he could hardly see and he ran Daytona and then won the race at Richmond the next week.
"That's just kind of the mentality that drivers have. If there's any way you can do it, you're going to still continue to race."
Another time when Rudd could have given in was in May 1988 in Charlotte while driving for Kenny Bernstein.
"That was during the tire wars between Hoosier and Goodyear and everybody was blowing tires," Rudd said. "We were running in The Winston and blew a right front tire and hit the fence, hit it really hard, and tore all the ligaments in the left knee."
Doctors wanted Rudd to have immediate surgery, sidelining him for six weeks. Instead, he flew to Indianapolis to see an orthopedic specialist who put him on an exercise program and designed a knee brace to keep Rudd in the car.
"The only trouble was I couldn't use my left leg at all, so they had the team work and put a hand clutch for pit stops," Rudd said. "Once I got off pit road, I could hand shift it and not use a clutch. That was a pretty tough weekend."
Again, Rudd finished seventh.
"Back when we came along, it was a fight to get a chance to get the good equipment," Rudd said. "There was maybe only five good cars, five really solid winning teams in the garage area.
"Once you had a shot at one of those rides, you couldn't afford to give it away."
Labonte took the ironman record from Richard Petty in 1996 when he drove in his 514th consecutive race. The two-time Winston Cup champion doesn't lament the way his streak ended.
"Unfortunately, I didn't get the right ear doctor," Labonte said. "After I missed a couple of races, I still had the problem. I went to see some other doctors and one guy diagnosed me and treated me in one day. If I'd had the right ear doctor in the first place, I'd never have missed those races."
Timing is important, too.
"Safety equipment is getting better all the time," Labonte said. "If I had the headrest that we have today, I would just imagine I would never have been hurt."
He hasn't missed a start since.
"If I could have held it, I could have really put it out there where it would be hard to reach," Labonte said.
Very shortly, however, the record will belong to Rudd.
"Ricky's had a good career, and I'm glad he is the guy that's going to break it," Labonte said. "We started racing about the same time and been competitors for many years and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him."
Rudd's record could last a long time.
"Most of the guys who've got 100 races less than me are as old as I am," he said. "The young guys, I see them coming in at a younger age in good equipment and leaving at a younger age, so I would say the record will probably stand for quite some time."
Rudd is proud of the streak, saying it shows his determination. But he also takes pride in his record of winning at least one race in 16 consecutive seasons, a string that ended in 1999.
"I kind of couple the two together," Rudd said. "To be out here every weekend, that says one thing, but to have that win streak, that kind of goes hand in hand with it."