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Ricky Rudd Epitomized What Made NASCAR Great

When I think Ricky Rudd, NASCAR’s newest Hall of Famer? I think the Big Apple.

“And if I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.
It’s up to you. New York, New York”

Frank Sinatra’s legendary tune is somewhat overused when writing about “The City That Never Sleeps,” but its ending lyric does not ring hollow.

It’s time to learn about Rudd’s impact on NASCAR by taking a trip back to the past. Before the playoffs, before the championship race, before the ROVAL. Back, back, back.

What made a NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver great back in the 1980s and ’90s?

Well, the first hurdle they had to clear was to start a race. That made them a Cup driver.

The best way to figure if a driver was successful was generally if they could get their car to finish top 25 in owner points. The NASCAR points fund would pay out to only the top 25, so finishing there could really help an owner scrape together funds to keep going the very next year.

What made a driver great was to finish top 10 in points. Why? Because the top 10 in points were given the privilege every season to go up to New York City, the Big Apple, and give a speech. It was a big deal for sponsors and it could help attract new ones to a team.

Remember, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

And no driver, from 1981 when NASCAR first held its awards ceremony in NYC to 2008, when it last did so, spoke on that stage more than Ricky Rudd.

On 18 different occasions, Rudd had a great season that required the soft-spoken Virginian to put on a tux and become the center of attention in the NASCAR world, if only for a few minutes. Nobody else did it more often.

Usually, it was boring. A check on the box, thank you to whatever sponsor was on the car that year, whatever make the car was. Rudd was a driver who largely avoided the spotlight. I can’t imagine he liked being there. Maybe at a go-kart track or something, but that didn’t quite pay the bills.

One time, Rudd stole the show, but that was an outlier. And it was mainly because he was mad at somebody else.

How did you get up on stage in New York? The best way to do so wasn’t just to win a bunch of races. That would help under the sport’s old point system, but it wasn’t a sound strategy.

How you got up there was getting the most out of your equipment. Finishing consistently, week after week, from February to November. Nobody mastered that art of consistency more than Rudd.

It’s a lot like baseball. In baseball, nobody hits 1.000. Even the best batters will have games where they never get on base. Every team will lose at least a third of the time. It’s about being as good as possible for as much as possible.

Now, some people will disagree with collecting top 10s. They think a driver only has a great year if they win at least one race. NASCAR had another way to judge that.

It was a big deal back then to be in something called the Winner’s Circle program. If a driver won a race, both they and their car owner would receive bonus money every race for the rest of the season – and the next one after that.

It was a main reason why sometimes, a veteran driver would drop out of a race early but still make more money then a younger driver who finished well ahead of them.

Thanks to his then-record 16 consecutive seasons with a win, Rudd was part of the program from 1983 to 1999, then returned to it from 2001 to 2003. For 21 seasons, Rudd, who did not win many races, was part of the winners-only club for all but one year.

He showed NASCAR was about more than trips to victory lane. After all, only one out of 40+ drivers every week could be a winner. But finishing top five or top 10 most weeks, building momentum and staying on the racetrack was what NASCAR was all about. It kept your nose clean, your equipment intact and moving forward to the following race.

It’s why Rudd was one of the sport’s most successful independent drivers, starting his own team and running it from 1994-99. He won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during that span, at that time one of the sport’s crown jewel events.

The type of consistency Rudd displayed was the goal of Bob Latford when he created the 1975-2003 point system. In the Latford model, second place could end the day with as many points as the winner. Finishing the race each week – along with finishing well – was the key in being able to stay in the race for the championship.

Throughout this year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame voting process, I’ve taken a couple of deep dives on just how crazy Ricky Rudd’s longevity records are. My mom was seven years old when Rudd recorded his first Cup Series top 10; she was 39 when Rudd scored his last top 10.

He would drive his rivals hard but fair. A clean race car driver, Rudd could and did get into a fight or two in his time. His 2003 fracas with Kevin Harvick, at Richmond Raceway still lives on as an iconic moment for younger fans.

But it wasn’t really Rudd’s style to rub fenders. He was far more focused on keeping that car clean and finishing his race. It was why he was trusted by some of the sport’s best car owners to drive for them: Richard Childress, Bud Moore, Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates, to name a few.

The reason why Rudd got 87% of the vote, sixth highest in the history of NASCAR HOF voting, is because he was one of the sport’s greatest drivers. And Rudd achieved that Hall of Fame status because of how often he was great.

Even once Rudd retired in 2005, quietly doing so in the last month of the season and without the ballyhoo so many others receive, it felt like he could still have something in the tank. Posting nine top-10 finishes with the Wood Brothers, a single-car team, he was still highly competitive and capable of winning under the right circumstances.

But when Rudd returned for a year in 2007, everybody knew it was time. He had given his all over 32 seasons, and a transition to another chassis (the Car of Tomorrow) proved to be too much after a forgettable reunion with Robert Yates Racing.

It wasn’t the way Rudd wanted his career to end, left with a sour taste at the tail end of RYR’s lifespan as a Cup Series organization. It was a workmanlike effort that appeared to fall short and, for years, remained short of an elevation to Hall of Fame status.

But on Tuesday, May 21, 2024, the industry finally decided to give something back to Ricky Rudd. A than -you for everything that he gave NASCAR. And next February, for one more time, he will put on the tux, stand on stage and be the center of the stock car world one last time.

It won’t be in New York. It doesn’t need to be; he’s already made it to the top.

Follow Michael on X @FinleyFactor

About the author

michaelfinley010

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021, and also formerly covered the SRX series from 2021-2023. He now covers the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series.

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Bill B

Excellent article.
I kind of felt like Ricky Rudd was a driver that everyone liked.

Greg

I became a NASCAR fan in the early 90s after moving to Virginia Beach from upstate NY. I quickly picked Rudd as my favorite driver as he was from nearby Chesapeake, VA. The #10 Tide Ford is one of the most iconic cars in NASCAR history. He came oh so close to getting a win in the famous Wood Brothers car at Kansas. That would have been a much celebrated victory. Congratulations to the Rooster on your induction into the HOF. You deserve it!!!

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