INDIANAPOLIS -- Winning the Brickyard 400 last year was supposed to launch Ricky Rudd's career as an ownerdriver to a new stratosphere. Instead, the victory preceded a downturn.
Rudd had a terrible '97 fall, falling to 17th in the point standings and ending a streak of eight years in the top 10. Heading into Saturday's fifth Brickyard, Rudd owns just one top-10 finish (a sixth at Dover in June), and he is 27th in the standings.
In fact, since winning the Brickyard, Rudd's only top-five is a fifth in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at Darlington last September.
"After Indy last year, it looked like all of a sudden we gave up; just quit running well," Rudd said. "But really, we had more than our share of wrecks. Our qualifying performance went down, which put us in the back of a lot of starts, and when that happened, it put us in the middle of a lot of early wrecks.
"This year, coming out of the box with the (new) Taurus, we just got behind during the winter. I wouldn't say we've caught up yet, but we are starting to see some improvement."
Rudd earned a career-high $571,000 with his Brickyard win, although the bonanza turned out to have a downside.
"That probably gave us some money to build some new cars, which we thought were newer and better," he said. "The crew chief we had at the time (Jim Long), I pretty much gave him the ball to run with it. They built a lot of new cars, spent a lot of money, but the newer cars were not as good as the old cars."
Bill Ingle replaced Long at crew chief six races into this season after spending the past two seasons working with eight different drivers. Ingle and Rudd were together in 1994 and 1995, Rudd's first two years as a driver/owner.
"Bill's had a difficult situation because he inherited a lot of cars that weren't built to his specifications," Rudd said. "We've been working a 7-day week trying to rebuild all the cars that were built incorrectly. The further we get with cars coming through the pipeline that are built to Bill's liking, the better we'll be.
The 1977 Rookie of the Year, Rudd, 42, has won 19 Winston Cup races and $13,502,320 (eighth all-time). He won his first race in 1983 with owner Richard Childress and finished second to Dale Earnhardt for the 1991 championship with Hendrick Motorsports.
Rudd left the powerful Hendrick team in 1994 to form his own operation, and he did well enough until the latter part of last season. Most notably, the Chesapeake, Va., native extended his streak of winning at least one race per year to 15 seasons through 1997. That's the longest active streak in NASCAR.
But Rudd has found himself at an increasing disadvantage against the sport's high-dollar multicar teams, which receive more test dates and can combine resources.
"Financially, the smaller teams can't compete any more," Rudd said. "There aren't that many talented mechanics around, and the multicar teams go after the ones there are. They go after teams that are a little underfunded, and those teams become employee training grounds for them. I don't like being in that position, but we don't have the money to be able to say, `OK, we'll match salaries and keep help.' That's one example."
No matter what happens, Rudd can always count a Brickyard 400 victory among his career accomplishments.
"Indy was definitely a good win for me," he said. "You're name is in the history book. My name is going to be on the side of the trophy for years to come. It's just a big race."