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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Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

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CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.

NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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CONCORD, N.C. —  NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

MORE: NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events 

MORE: NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

Chastain said he’s fine with being known for that move, which will never be repeated in NASCAR history.

“I’m proud that I’ve been able to make a wave that will continue beyond just 2022 or just beyond me,” Chastain told NBC Sports earlier this month about the move’s legacy. “There will be probably a day that people will learn about me because of that, and I’m good with that. I’m proud of it.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again. I don’t think it will ever pay the reward that it paid off for us that it did that day. I hope I’m around in 35 years to answer someone’s question about it. And I probably still won’t have a good answer on why it worked.”

The video of Chastain’s wall-hugging maneuver had 12.5 million views on the NBC Sports TikTok account within a week of it happening. Excluding the Olympics, the only other video that had had more views on the NBC Sports TikTok account to that point in 2022 was Rich Strike’s historic Kentucky Derby win. 

Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo all praised Chastain’s move at the time, joining a chorus of competitors throughout social media.