He asked for standby relief with about 300 laps to go. He was doused with scalding water by a well-meaning crew trying to cool him off. And his cooling system wasn't working at all.
But with a car he knew he could win in - and a piece of NASCAR Winston Cup history as the prize - Ricky Rudd wasn't giving up the car for anyone."If our car wasn't so darn good, I know I would have given the steering wheel over to Hut (Stricklin)," a somewhat revived Rudd said Sunday after winning the NAPA AutoCare 500 in sizzling heat at Martinsville Speedway.
"I could taste Victory Lane today. I knew I was getting close."
The gutsy triumph extended Rudd's streak of seasons with a victory to 16, moving him past Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip and into sole possession of the consistency record on stock car racing's premier circuit.
And it came despite conditions that were dangerous, with temperatures in the 90s outside and around 150 inside the cars, and then got worse.
During a pit stop, Rudd's team handed him a glass of water.
"I said, `Man, I need more than a glass of water. I need a garden hose,' " Rudd said. "They used the cool down machine, which is basically ice water, but I guess they weren't paying attention and the hose was laying in the hot sun, so it was about 150 degrees and it just about cooked me."
Rudd's helmet, designed to blow cool air onto his head and cool his seat, also malfunctioned, leaving him hotter still with blisters everywhere.
At the end, he said, "it was like sitting on a hot iron and knowing you're getting burned, but mentally just blocking the pain out."
After being helped from his Ford after the race, Rudd lay prone for several minutes before he was able to celebrate the hard-earned victory.
Several drivers were relieved because of exhaustion during the race, and most who finished immediately sought refuge in their air-conditioned trailers or the infield care center, where they were pumped with fluids and oxygen.
It was the Chesapeake, Va., native's 20th career victory and third on the .526-mile oval, Winston Cup's oldest and shortest track. The other two came in 1983 and 1986, and Rudd hadn't finished in the top three here since.
Series points leader Jeff Gordon followed Rudd into turn one out of the 11th and final caution with 51 laps remaining, but never made a serious bid for the lead and wound up second, his 14th consecutive top-five.
"I feel like I was in a microwave on high for about three or four hours," Gordon said after receiving liquids and oxygen after the race.
"I can't say enough about what Ricky has done here today," Gordon said. "To be able to do it with a one-car operation when everybody says you've got to have multiple car teams, he proved that you don't have to do it today.
"It was a great effort. I can't say enough about it."
Mark Martin finished third and fell another five points behind Gordon in the championship race. Martin trails by 199 points with six races left.
Rich Bickle finished fourth, the best showing of his career, followed by defending champion Jeff Burton, Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott.
The top seven were the only cars left on the lead lap.
"I don't know what to say," Bickle said. His previous best finish was 18th. "It's pretty emotional for me. This is like a win."
Rudd took the lead for good with 96 laps remaining when he ducked under the wiggling cars of Burton and Bobby Labonte in turn four. Burton was leading at the time, and Labonte was fighting to stay on the lead lap.
Two more cautions gave Gordon another crack at overtaking the leader, but each time Rudd beat the field into the first turn and pulled comfortably ahead. He led four times in all for a total of 198 laps.
Sterling Marlin led 231 laps to earn the five bonus points for leading the most, but he finished a hard-luck 18th because of electrical problems.