Rudd Starting New Season With New Team, New Attitude
Posted February 9, 2003 5:42 a.m. EST
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ricky Rudd needed about a month off this winter to clear his head.
Now refreshed and rejuvenated, he's starting the season with a clean slate and an optimistic new team.
"I don't like this to be complicated," Rudd said Sunday as he waited out a rainstorm at Daytona International Speedway.
"I like to focus on racing, and I don't like a lot of distractions. I'm not here to be a TV star or mess with anything. I just want to race."
After a turbulent third and final season with Robert Yates Racing, Rudd is getting that chance in a new ride with the Wood Brothers.
His split with Yates wasn't pretty. And when it became clear he was looking for a new ride for 2003, the courtship from other top teams was dizzying.
Rudd finally settled on the Wood Brothers, a 54-year-old Virginia operation rich in racing history but short on recent success.
He replaced Elliott Sadler. Sadler essentially flip-flopped with Rudd, taking Rudd's ride at Yates after saying he wanted out of his Wood Brothers deal so he could drive for a more competitive team.
Rudd has no doubts the No. 21 Ford can be among the leaders every weekend.
"Everyone thinks this is a tiny team tucked away in Stuart (Va.) and 100 years behind," Rudd said. "But it's the total opposite. I know what we've got to work with, I know where we are, and I know where we are headed.
"At this time of the year, all the teams are optimistic, but we really are feeling good about our chances."
That's because to get Rudd, the Wood Brothers needed to significantly upgrade their program. They had the money to pay the salary Rudd was looking for, but meeting his demands would have meant skimping in competition areas.
So sponsor Motorcraft upped its commitment, and Ford did everything it could to lend its support.
With a sudden surplus of cash, the Woods are guaranteed a minimum of 120 hours in the wind tunnel this season - each hour costs $2,100 - to improve their technology.
And they are one of just a handful of teams using an innovative 40-percent model program, which gives them a scaled down version of a Winston Cup car to try new technologies on and take to the wind tunnel at half the cost.
For the first time since 1994, when Morgan Shepherd ended the year sixth in the points for the Wood Brothers, the organization has targeted finishing in the Top 10 as its season goal.
"We feel better than we have in a long time," said Len Wood, who along with older brother, Eddie, runs the business that started the year after NASCAR was founded by their father, Glen, and uncle, Leonard.
"Our immediate goal is to get to (the awards ceremony) in New York, and the closer to the stage, the better. But we think we've got a shot at getting there."
Rudd is confident he can bring the car back to prominence. The Wood Brothers have 97 career wins - 36 by David Pearson from 1973 to 1978 - but only three victories since 1988.
They've got a long-standing leasing agreement with Roush Racing to use its engines, and the partnership stretches into other areas.
At a recent test in Kentucky, Rudd was able to hop into Roush driver Mark Martin's car and run Martin's equipment and compare it to his own.
"People say this is a one-car team, but it's really not," Rudd said. "When I signed on, I felt like I got five teammates right away with the Roush guys. We're in good shape over here; we really are."
Rudd has never won the Daytona 500. He said a victory in next Sunday's Great American Race could validate some of the optimism and enthusiasm he has felt since switching teams.
It also would end years of frustration in one of NASCAR's premier races.
"If you look back through history, certain drivers have been really good here over the years and won more races than others," Rudd said. "But you tend to go back and look at the teams that have been strong here. Nowadays, the equipment, to me, makes up a lot more difference than the driver does at this particular race track.
"I'm fortunate that I'm driving for the Wood Brothers this year, and when I look back, and see that this team ran second in the Daytona 500 last year, I get excited about that.
"To me, this race track has been kind to certain teams over the years," Rudd said, "and it's been kind to the Wood Brothers over the years, so we look forward to racing the 500.
"As far as feeling like it owes me something, if seniority or coming here the most has anything to do with it, yeah, I guess you'd feel somewhat cheated. But the way I look at it, none of these race tracks owe any of us anything, so you take what it will give you. I'd love to get greedy and win this thing, but we'll see how it turns out."