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Retro Racing: Rudd, Nadeau tango with lady luck at Sonoma

June 21, 2012, Mark Aumann,

The way Ricky Rudd's 2002 season had been going, he was looking for any lucky charm he could lay his hands on by the time the Cup Series reached Sonoma that June.

At Richmond, he had the dominant car and a healthy lead with less than 100 laps to go when Rusty Wallace cut a tire and slowed. Just as Rudd went to pass him on the outside, Wallace's car skidded up the track and clipped Rudd -- sending him hard into the concrete wall and out of the race.

At Dover, he led 84 laps only to have Jimmie Johnson wrestle the win away with 38 laps remaining.

"I felt for [Jerry Nadeau]. We weren't going to catch him. We were going to finish second. I hate to win on somebody's bad luck."


At Pocono, Rudd was less than six laps from victory when he cut a tire, allowing teammate Dale Jarrett to catch and pass him for the victory.

So, when a fan sent a package, "guaranteed to change his luck," Rudd decided there wouldn't be any harm in giving it a try before the 2002 Dodge/SaveMart 350.

"I don't believe in superstitions," Rudd said. "But one of our fans sent a package of four-leaf clovers and it did happen to make the trip all the way out to California. My wife did happen to remind me to rub on it this morning before we got in the car."

Whether the clovers had anything to do with it or not, the bad luck that seemed to be hanging over Rudd's No. 28 Ford found a new victim in Jerry Nadeau. Although, that's not to say Nadeau hadn't already had his share.

After struggling to record only one top-10 finish through the first 14 races, Nadeau lost his job with Hendrick Motorsports. So, Nadeau was hoping that a one-off opportunity with Petty Enterprises at Sonoma might lead to something bigger and better. And that was almost the case.

Despite spinning out and bringing out a caution just after halfway, Nadeau found himself in the lead after the final restart and built more a six-second advantage over Rudd. The No. 28 Ford driver was able to significantly cut into that deficit, but still trailed by more than four seconds with three laps to go.

At that point, Rudd assumed he'd have to settle for second-best again.

"We were sort of resigned to the fact that we ran out of time and we were going to run second today," Rudd said. "And, all of the sudden, he pulled over and we won the race."

Coming across the start/finish line, Nadeau's car suddenly slowed and began emitting a trail of light white smoke from under the rear bumper. He pulled off onto the drag strip portion of the course as Rudd powered back up the hill into Turn 1, now shown as the leader.

Just seconds before, Nadeau had radioed his crew about issues with the engine -- thinking that perhaps he had run out of fuel. He knew he was close, having pitted for the final time with 42 laps remaining.

Instead, it wasn't until Nadeau tried to accelerate out of the sharp hairpin at the bottom of the course that he knew for sure what had happened. He had broken the rear-end gear.

"The car started vibrating really bad with about four laps to go," Nadeau said. "I thought it was the fuel pressure, but it wasn't. Coming off Turn 11, I spun the gears and we lost the rear end."

While Nadeau was disconsolate, Rudd was elated. The winner of the first Cup race at Sonoma, Rudd had won four poles and recorded eight top-five finishes in 13 starts up to that point.

In 1991, Rudd took the checkered flag first, only to have NASCAR issue him a time penalty for having spun out Davey Allison with two laps to go. So, even while celebrating his return to Victory Lane, Rudd could empathize with Nadeau, who finished 34th.

"You hate to see misfortunate come the other guy's way," Rudd said. "Jerry could have used a big shot in the arm with a win today and Petty Enterprises, that's just a great operation over there. But we've lost some races the last three weekends under very similar conditions.

"I felt for him. We weren't going to catch him. We were going to finish second. I hate to win on somebody's bad luck."

Nadeau's performance at Sonoma -- coupled with leading 37 laps at New Hampshire for Nelson Bowers three races later -- did lead to the opportunity to run the No. 44 for the rest of the season.

But, whatever luck they had that day proved to be fleeting for both Rudd and Nadeau, as neither won again. Nadeau's career was cut short when he was seriously injured in a practice crash at Richmond the following spring, while Rudd retired in 2007 after running four more seasons.