Rudd revels in newly realized freedom to just drive

On Motor Sports

March 05, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Twenty-five years after starting his Winston Cup career, Ricky Rudd is starting it again.

Nearly everyone who follows the sport knows Rudd. He is the sturdy driver from Chesapeake, Va., who set the record for consecutive seasons with a win at 16 before seeing the streak end last year.

Rudd began his career March 2, 1975, at age 18. Now 43, he is starting on the pole today at the CarsDirect.com 400 in Las Vegas. He's there with a track qualifying record of 172.563 mph in the storied No. 28 Ford that belongs to car owner Robert Yates.

For Rudd, who last season lost his longtime racing sponsor, which in turn caused him to close down his team, it is a fine place to be.

"I had the opportunity to try again with my own team," Rudd said. "But it would have been 50 percent under-funded. I'm not out here to survive. I'm out here to win. Twenty-five years ago, my goal was to win races and championships. That hasn't changed. I finally saw the situation clearly."

His career was winding down. He didn't have time to build a championship team for himself. Yates' team was there, in need of a driver to replace the departing Kenny Irwin.

"All the ingredients were right here," said Rudd, whose 20 career victories rank 27th on the Winston Cup all-time winning list. "It was a wake-up call. All the resources are here to succeed, and the model of a championship is here in our teammate Dale Jarrett. It's up to us to make it all work."

This will be Rudd's third race for his new team, and he is eighth in Winston Cup points standings, which holds promise for a lot better end-of-the-year standing than last season's 31st.

"Ricky is like a kid in a candy store," said Jarrett. "Being here has kind of reborn him, and it's great. There was so much pressure on him before, he never had time to stop and talk. Now, he loves to talk to everyone.

"And it's a win-win situation. Everything is not put on [Jarrett's crew chief] Todd Parrott's shoulders. Now we have teammates capable of contributing. We don't have to be the sole support, and that will benefit us."

Rudd is equally enamored of Jarrett.

"We're not super-close friends," Rudd said. "But I have a lot of respect for Dale on and off the track. I know what he went through, the struggles he had to overcome before he earned his championship."

Having owned and driven a single-car team the past six years, Rudd doesn't have much practice at communicating with a teammate, but he said he and Jarrett have been helping each other with their chassis. He also said his crew chief, Michael McSwain, who with seven other crewmen came to the Yates operation from Rudd's old team, and Parrott are working well together.

"It's a situation where, on a given day, we have a team that can do better than the No. 88 [Jarrett]," Rudd said, beaming.

It's something Rudd couldn't say before. As car owner and driver, he had little left to give when he crawled inside his race car on Sunday afternoons.

"I couldn't see it then," he said. "I didn't realize it was affecting my driving. But before I was a car owner, I was on a heavy workout program, and that went to zero the last six years. I've noticed in just these few races that I'm a lot fresher mentally when I get to the racetracks."

He has something else he hasn't had for a long time, and that's time itself.

A couple years ago, he took his family to Disney World for a five-day vacation. But in their hotel room, he had set up an office -- cell phone, FedEx delivery, computer. His race team was never off his mind.

"This year, we went to Disney World for eight days before Daytona," Rudd said.

And?

"And nothing," he said. "All I did was vacation and enjoy my family."

Today, all he has to do is drive.

Money, money, money

The Winston Cup point fund -- the year-end money awarded to the top 25 drivers in the championship point standings -- has been increased to a record $10 million.

The champion's share will be $3 million, with the runner-up getting $1,050,000.

A couple interesting facts arise from the increase: This will be the first time that the first- and second-place drivers will be guaranteed more than $1 million. And, when the point fund started in 1971, it totaled $100,000 -- one percent of the current $10 million pay-out.

Nuts and bolts

For those who haven't heard via the grapevine, Chesapeake Motorsports Development Corp., the long-suffering group that was trying to get a major-league track built in Maryland, is out of business.

The group's former chief operating officer, Joe Mattioli III, did not return calls to his Pennsylvania office to discuss the corporation's folding.

Craftsman truck driver Donnie Neuenberger is flying to California next weekend for a meeting with Ebay.com, which helped sponsor his racing efforts at Daytona two weeks ago.

Neuenberger said he has hopes of running six truck races this season and two Goodies Dash races.

Crownsville driver Kelly "Girl" Sutton is planning her next race.

Sutton, who has multiple sclerosis, hopes to qualify for the Goodies Dash race at Charlotte (Lowe's) Motor Speedway on May 24 as part of a six-race package with her sponsor, COPAXONE.

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