A gambler’s instincts and some incredible racing luck gave Ricky Rudd the biggest victory of his career.
Sound judgment played a role, too.
“You’ve got to be smart,” Rudd said Saturday after using all three to win the Brickyard 400. “The fastest car doesn’t always win.”
Certainly not when they have to stop for fuel in the closing laps, which is what Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon had to do.
“I couldn’t have hardly coasted around here to save that much fuel to go that far,” Jarrett said.
“But some people work on fuel mileage and some on horsepower.”
That was Rudd’s specialty - something the team practiced a day earlier.
“This is just a shock to me,” the owner-driver said after winning the fourth edition of the most lucrative race in NASCAR history.
His share of the $4.965 million purse was $571,000, second only to the $613,000 won by Gordon in 1994, in the inaugural Brickyard.
The key to the 19th victory of his career was Rudd’s decision to try to go the last 46 laps - 115 miles - on a tank of gas. Two caution flags in the last 17 laps allowed that.
“We knew it was going to be really tight,” Rudd said. “We were going to go for it. We were going to roll the dice. We were either going to win it or finish last.”
The yellow flag that assured Rudd of the victory flew just seven laps from the finish, when Rich Bickle hit the third-turn wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was Rudd’s second win of the season. He has won at least once in each of the last 15 years.
The 160-lap race on the historic 2-1/2-mile oval looked like it was coming down to a shootout between Gordon and defending champion Jarrett.
Both were planning to make pit stops in the final 10 laps for a splash of gas before Robby Gordon, a former Indy-car driver and now a Winston Cup rookie, hit the wall on lap 145.
NASCAR officials did not immediately throw a caution flag, but there was too much debris on the track to keep the green flag out. The yellow waved on lap 148, and Gordon and Jarrett pitted.
Rudd had decided with 30 laps remaining to conserve fuel, so he remained on the track.
In fact, four drivers, including Bobby Labonte, Johnny Benson Jr. and Ricky Craven, gambled on getting to the end without stopping. That relegated Jarrett and Gordon to seventh and eighth for the restart on lap 151.
By the time the green flag waved again with three laps remaining, Rudd was absolutely sure he could get to the finish. He drove across the finish line 0.183-seconds - about 2-1/2 car-lengths - in front of Labonte’s Pontiac. It was the closest margin in the four Brickyard races.
Jarrett wound up third, followed by Gordon, the leader in the driver standings. Close behind were Jeremy Mayfield, Mark Martin, Benson and Craven. Spokane’s Chad Little crashed his Pontiac after completing just two laps and finished 42nd, good for $55,755.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A look back Brickyard 400 champs 1994: Jeff Gordon 1995: Dale Earnhardt 1996: Dale Jarrett 1997: Ricky Rudd