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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Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.