Where Are They Now: ‘Retired’ Ricky Rudd still competitive as ever

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Few athletes walk away from a sport on their terms and with few or no regrets.

Ricky Rudd is one of those rare few.

After more than 30 years in NASCAR’s premier series, Rudd left stock car racing by simply fading away.

By choice.

When NASCAR Talk approached Rudd about a “Where Are They Now?” story, the 58-year-old took it graciously.

“As far as what I’m doing now, I like to tell people, ‘As little as possible,’ he said. “We do a lot of family things, but as far as racing, I’m retired.”

But that doesn’t mean Rudd’s story ends there.

The Chesapeake, Va., native remains busy, but like his racing career, on his terms and at his own pace.


EIGHT YEARS AWAY SEEMS LIKE 20

It’s been eight years since Rudd walked away from the sport. He says it seems more like 20.

“In the beginning, I wanted to stay away,” he said. “I didn’t want to be wondering if I made the right decision, should I step back in and be involved in some capacity.

source: Getty Images
Ricky Rudd battles Kurt Busch in Rudd’s final Sprint Cup race of his career at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2007. Photo: Getty Images.

“I think that staying away and keeping the distance, it let me make a clearer separation.

“Quite frankly, if I went to a racetrack today, I wouldn’t know anybody. I’d be a stranger.”

To magnify that, Rudd recalls an instance with David Pearson and Bud Moore late in his career that colored his decision to retire.

“They walked out through the truck and about five or six crew members saw them, and one of them asked me, ‘Hey, who were those two old guys that came in the truck earlier?’ ” Rudd said. “And I’m thinking, that could be me in a few years.”


HE KNEW IT WAS FINALLY TIME

Rudd had begun preparing for retirement from the sport around 2003, but like many athletes, he kept coming back.

For three years, in fact. He returned for 2004 and ’05, sat out 2006 (with the exception of the June race at Dover, when he relieved an injured Tony Stewart), but came back for one more season at age of 50 in 2007.

In mid-August of that year, Rudd announced he would be retiring at the end of the season. If he had any lingering doubts about calling it quits, those abruptly ended about two weeks later on Sept. 4, 2007, when Rudd was involved in a serious multi-car wreck at Fontana – eight days before his 51st birthday. He was briefly knocked unconscious and suffered a separated shoulder that sidelined him five races, the first time he missed any races in his career due to injury.

Rudd returned to finish the last six races of that season, and with little fanfare, he simply walked away.

“And I have not been to a Cup event or track since that time,” he said.

He would not climb into another Cup car until 2013, when he played himself on two episodes of the resurrected TV show “Dallas.”

ESPN offered him a job  as an analyst in 2008, but he turned it down because the grueling travel schedule would keep him away from his family. In the last year, Rudd has made guest appearances on NBCSN’s NASCAR America and hopes to do more going forward.

 

HE WAS IRONMAN BEFORE ROBERT DOWNEY JR.

Rudd made 906 career Cup starts, won 23 races and earned 194 top-five and 374 top-10 finishes. His best season finish was second to Dale Earnhardt in 1991.

Rudd also raced for some of NASCAR’s greatest team owners, including Richard Childress, Junie Donlavey, Bud Moore, Rick Hendrick and Robert Yates.

But Rudd is perhaps best known for his durability and hunger to never let anyone take his place in his car.

He set a modern-day record with 788 consecutive starts from the 1981- 2005, earning the title of NASCAR’s “Ironman.”

“We just sort of learned how to tape up, wrap up and do whatever it takes for you to get through the next event,” Rudd said. “I’m proud to look back and say a lot of guys probably wouldn’t have drove some of the races I drove when I was hurt the way I was.”

Rudd’s endurance record likely will fall later this season. Jeff Gordon is on pace to make his 789th consecutive start in September at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, breaking a mark that many believed would never be broken.

While Rudd is proud of his Ironman reign, another career achievement ranks even higher to him – winning at least one race in 16 consecutive seasons. Only Richard Petty (18 consecutive seasons) and David Pearson (17) won at least one race for a longer period of time.

 

STILL FUELING HIS NEED FOR SPEED

Rudd is quick to say he has no regrets from his NASCAR career.

“I miss friends, but that’s the only part of it I miss,” he said.

He admits he also misses something else.

“I miss the competition, trying to beat the other guy,” Rudd said. “I don’t think you ever get that out of your system.”

Rudd still races, invariably turning mountain bike rides with friends near his suburban Charlotte home into impromptu races.

“One of the guys told me, ‘You never retired from racing, you just traded a car for a bicycle,’ ” he said.

Last year, Rudd competed in a go-kart league in Mooresville, N.C.

“I had so much fun,” Rudd admits. “I’d chase Will Power around from the IndyCar Series, and (former NASCAR driver) Lake Speed would be out there.”

Instead of racing in the Senior Class (over 30 years old), Rudd competed primarily against up-and-coming drivers from 16 to 23. Although he didn’t win, he said, “I came close a couple times. The point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a go-kart or a Cup car, you fight as hard as you would fight to win the Daytona 500. … It satisfied my need for speed, I guess you might say.”


THE FUTURE FOR RUDD

Even though he hasn’t been to a full Sprint Cup race since he retired, Rudd is still active in the sport in one distinct way: he’s NASCAR Hall of Fame voter.

Next month, that panel will convene to determine the 2016 class.

“It’s so hard to do with the history of so much great drivers,” Rudd said. “We get stuck with the dilemma of young vs. old. Every one of these guys that comes up for nomination needs and deserves to be in (the Hall), but how do you choose the time slot? I have to think at least a couple weeks over that.”

source: Getty Images
Ricky Rudd still keeps his hand in NASCAR be being a member of the selection group for the NASCAR Hall of Fame (shown with former NASCAR driver Robert Pressley at the 2014 Hall of Fame selection meeting). Photo: Getty Images.

While he couldn’t vote for himself, Rudd admits he thinks about being nominated one day.

“I don’t think I’ve gotten to a place that I deserve to be on (the ballot), but maybe that spot will come,” Rudd said.

“But the hard thing is how do you play catch-up at the same time you’re trying to take care of the people that deserve to be in, like Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte and Mark Martin. Everybody deserves a spot, but there’s only so many you can put in in a year when you elect only five people in each year.

“(Being chosen for the Hall) would be nice. I guess if nothing else, I may or may not ever make it, but it’s nice to think you might be considered one day.”

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Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report