Friday, June 02, 2006

The Relief Driver

Ricky Rudd has had 23 wins in his long career, and used to be known as the driver who won at least once a year since 1983. That streak came to an end in 1999, though he would go on to win 3 more times. He's been with top teams for sure, and those wins were all the more impressive when you consider his stint as an owner driver in the mid to late 90's, right when such teams were going extinct. He spent time with Robert Yates Racing before moving over to the long-mediocre 21 Wood Brothers car. The last 3 years of his career essentially lacked the real chance he deserved to go out with a win, but he did help rebuild a team that seemed doomed before then.

So this weekend at Dover, Ricky Rudd will practice and qualify a top tier car for the first time in years, at a track he's won at four times. Though Tony Stewart will start the number 20 to get the points for the race, many say he will be out after the first caution, and Rudd will be in.

These stories are always some of my favorite when they crop up. Oddly enough, driver injuries present unique opportunities for often underestimated drivers to prove themselves. When my guy Bill Elliott was hurt pretty bad after a wreck at Talledega about a decade back, a young guy named Jerry Nadeau subbed for him, and I believe finished 6th in a race he was expected to just make laps in. That injury helped really launch his career (ironically and sadly cut short by his own injury.) Years later, I believe it was Stewart again who was unable to continue on at Sonoma, while John Andretti had just blown his engine. Andretti hopped in that 20 car and really showed what he could do when given the right equipment.

The young guy proves his skill, and the underestimated driver shows what he could do with the right equipment underneath him. Can the retired Rudd show he still has it with this one shot? I wouldn't count him out at a track he's been so successful at in the past, especially since he gets the practice time to knock the rust off. If he is even moderately successful, it could mean quite a bit not only for him, but other part time, semi-retired, and retired drivers looking for a ride. If Rudd can pull it off with the right equipment, why not try it with Terry Labonte or Bill Elliott?

If anything, it will be an interesting story to watch this weekend, and I'll be paying close attention.

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