AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Ricky Rudd knows bad finishes in his last two races have all but ended a run for the Winston Cup championship, but he's not ready to give up.
Heading to Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500, Rudd trails series leader Jeff Gordon by a substantial 395 points. But with five races remaining and a maximum point spread - first to 43rd - of 151 at each event, Rudd still has time to at least make it interesting.
That's an improbability, however.
"It's going to take some serious circumstances," Rudd said.
The suburban track, where practice begins Friday, is a good place to start his stretch run. He had a victory on the one-mile oval in 1995 and could easily have won here last fall.
Still looking for his first win with Robert Yates Racing - his then-new team - Rudd's Ford was leading with just 19 laps remaining when a pack of lapped cars wrecked in front of him.
"Not being able to win at Phoenix last year was incredibly disappointing because the car was so good and everything was going our way," Rudd said. "My plan was to keep driving in front until the end of the race."
But he never got the chance.
"I had led for about 40 laps when I saw the wreck way up in front of me," Rudd said. "I thought I was going to be in good shape, but cars kept wrecking and sliding to the inside of the track - right into my path. Unfortunately, I couldn't avoid it."
Rudd, who finally got that first Yates win earlier this year at Pocono International Raceway, added a victory in Richmond, Va.
But he has lost ground in this year's title chase with some recent bad luck.
Rudd blew an engine two weeks ago in Martinsville, Va., and finished 39th. Last Sunday, he was part of a 16-car wreck on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway and finished 26th. Gordon finished ninth and seventh in those races, adding 158 points to his lead.
But the three-time champion, whose last title came in 1998, is taking nothing for granted.
"There's no lead that's comfortable enough for me right now," Gordon said. "We just can't afford any mistakes, and Phoenix has never been the best track for me."
In eight starts here, Gordon has three top-fives and six top-10s, an average finish of 11.2. It's one of only four tracks currently on the schedule at which he has not won.
Gordon, who leads the series with six victories and 22 top-10s in 31 starts this season, needs only to finish 18th or better in the remaining races to win another title. But there's nothing conservative in his approach.
"We really want to win this race," he said. "We've raced here since 1993 and haven't won in a Cup car. I've won a Busch race, but this team really wants to win a Cup race here.
"We're not worried about finishing in a certain position during these last few races to guarantee the championship. We're trying to win each race. If we can't win, we want to finish as high as possible. We're not going to change our game plan around this late in the season."
But Rudd won't give up.
"I'm optimistic about Sunday's race," he said. "Along with running well here last year, the No. 28 team has proven that we're now a championship-contending team."
Rudd added that crew chief Michael "Fatback" McSwain has flat tracks like Phoenix figured out.
"I'm ready for Phoenix," Rudd said. "I'd like to get that one that got away from us last year."
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