INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - 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 a combination of the 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 keys 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 the second victory of the season for Rudd, who has won at least once in each of the last 15 years.
"Today, we were a third- or fourth-place car, but we just kept digging," the 40-year-old Virginian said. "In practice the other day, we were a last-place car and they didn't give up. They kept working on it."
The 160-lap race on the historic 21/2 -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.
"I began to back off the throttle," he said, heeding the advice of his crew. "Those guys kept telling me, `You got to back off. If you don't back off, you're not going to make it.' And then that late caution played right into our hands."
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.
For a moment, it appeared that Jeff Burton might have gotten the biggest break of the race when that caution came out while he was pitting for tires because of a vibration.
Burton had challenged Jarrett and Gordon until the tire problem. He was able to get back onto the track without losing a lap, but NASCAR penalized him to the rear of the line for speeding on pit road.
"NASCAR did the right thing," said Burton, who admitted he exceeded the 55 mph speed limit on purpose to make sure he didn't lose a lap. "I made the call to take off."
Rudd stayed out front the rest of the way, thanks to Bickle, who was taken to Methodist Hospital complaining of back pain.
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 21/2 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.
"It was fun racing, and if those two guys in the front had happened to run out, then we were racing for the win," Jarrett said. "They really had to be conserving a lot of fuel."
Rudd averaged 130.828 mph in a race slowed for 25 laps by six caution flags. There were 19 lead changes among 11 drivers.
The crowd was estimated at 320,000.
The race got off to a clean start, with pole-winning Ernie Irvan breaking away to a 10 car-length lead over teammate Jarrett. But the field was bunched again on lap three after Chad Little slammed into the first-turn wall following contact with Lake Speed.
Derrike Cope ignited a multi-car crash on lap 14, skidding through the grassy strip separating the track from the warmup lane and up into the wall. Michael Waltrip struck Bill Elliott, who was braking, then slammed hard into Cope. Bobby Hamilton and Ted Musgrave also came away from the melee with body damage.
Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon, who started 24th in the 43-car field, was eating up ground. By the end of the second caution period, he had moved to ninth. He took his first lead on lap 40, and battled with Jarrett until the late caution flags took the race away.
Irvan wound up 10th.
Gordon's points lead increased to 79 over Martin. Jarrett is 179 points behind and Terry Labonte trails by 231. The defending series champion started the day third, but lost ground when he blew an engine and finished 40th.