Milestone taken in stride

FONTANA, Calif. -- The year Ricky Rudd started his first NASCAR race, the country's hit movie was "Jaws," Jimmy Hoffa went missing, and Bill Clinton married Hillary Rodham.

It was March 2, 1975, six months before Juan Pablo Montoya was born.

Since then, "Jaws" has become legendary, Hoffa still hasn't been found, and you know what has transpired with Bill and Hillary.

And Rudd has started 899 NASCAR Cup races.

When he takes the green flag today to start the Sharp Aquos 500 at California Speedway, it will be his 900th race. The only person to eclipse that milestone is Richard Petty, who retired with 1,185 starts.

"It means I'm old, that's what it means," Rudd, who will turn 51 in 10 days, said of his anticipated start. "It's not one I set out for when I first started my career.

"I had no idea that I'd be able to be here talking about my 900th start, but I'm pretty proud about that."

A family friend in Norfolk County, Va., Bill Champion, was looking for someone to drive his under-funded entry in a race at North Carolina Speedway. He tabbed Rudd, who was 18.

The rookie driver made an impression by finishing 11th. He ran four more times that year, with one top-10 finish. Those were his first races in a stock car, though he had raced go-karts since age 9.

Over his NASCAR career, Rudd has recorded 194 top-five finishes and 374 times -- 42 percent of his starts -- placed 10th or better.

"Running 900 starts is great ... but I look more at the quality," Rudd said. "I'm probably more proud of not the quantity but the quality over the years."

He has won 23 races and 29 poles, including the one for the 2000 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His last win came in 2002 on the Infineon Raceway road course in Sonoma, Calif.

He has driven for 11 owners, including himself and his father, Al Rudd Sr., Richard Childress, Kenny Bernstein, Rick Hendrick, the Wood Brothers and Robert Yates.

"I probably moved from team to team more than I should have, but wherever I went I felt like we could maybe better my career," Rudd said.

Two years ago, after setting a NASCAR record of most consecutive starts with 788, he left the Wood Brothers to take at least a year off.

When he made the announcement, he said he hadn't taken a vacation or a sick day in nearly 30 years of racing. "It seemed like the perfect time to step back and take a break," he said.

But he returned to Robert Yates Racing this year to take over its No. 88 Ford after Dale Jarrett left to drive Toyotas for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Rudd has struggled at Yates this season with a best finish of seventh, his only top 10, and is 30th in points.

He will start 37th in today's 43-car field.

"We're out here trying to make the best of it," Rudd said. "It's a fine line between hitting the (right mechanical) combination and missing it.

"If you miss it, it's a long day, but if you hit it right, it's a fun day here."

It could be his last race on the California oval.

A few weeks ago he said he'll leave the Cup series after this season but left the door open to return, if only slightly, should a part-time opportunity arise.

"As you grow older, your interests change,'' he said. "I'm kind of looking forward to the next chapter.

"I just don't know what it is yet."

If it's anything like his racing career it will be a long, productive one.