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Rudd where he wants to be

After breakup with Yates, the 45-year-old looks forward to run at championship and racing for Wood Brothers team.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

With nine races left as driver of the No. 28 Ford, Ricky Rudd is not out of the Winston Cup championship hunt. Just 227 points behind leader Mark Martin, he is focused on finishing the season strong.

But sometimes, the No. 21 catches his eye -- and Rudd smiles.

His breakup with Robert Yates Racing is one of the ugliest in recent memory, and Rudd has the black eye to prove it. So he looks forward to finishing his career in the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Ford. After a lengthy search, the sought-after Rudd picked the family-owned Wood Brothers over flashier and presumably better ones.

But it sure feels good.

"It's kind of a neat deal," said Rudd, 45, who signed a three-year contract. "Obviously, I watch what goes on over there from a distance, and the biggest thing I see is people feeling like you're welcomed. Good things happen to good people. You have to be happy for them, and I'm happy for myself."

In three seasons with Yates, Rudd returned the No. 28 to a prominence it had not known since the death of Davey Allison in 1993. Rudd still is not sure how, one year after competing for the championship, he became the odd man out.

Early in the season, Yates made plans to hire promising young driver Elliott Sadler for 2003 as a teammate to 1999 champion Dale Jarrett. A new sponsor, M&Ms, would bring more money than Havoline, which had been the primary sponsor of the No. 28 since its inception in 1989. The crew chief Rudd brought to the organization, Michael McSwain, would work with Sadler in 2003.

But no one told Rudd.

For months, Rudd and Yates were at odds. When it became clear Yates would not field three teams for 2003, Rudd fielded offers from as many as eight owners. In the end, Ford officials intervened to broker a deal with the Wood Brothers.

Emotionally drained from his saga with Yates, Rudd saw in the Wood Brothers the perfect combination of a team capable of winning races and a family atmosphere. Based in Rudd's native Virginia, he can be competitive on the track and spend quality time with his wife, Linda, and 8-year-old son, Landon.

The irony is that Sadler started the season by announcing in May he wanted out of his contract with Wood Brothers to pursue more promising opportunities. So, how could this be a step up for Rudd? Because having Rudd moves the Wood Brothers up the pecking order with Ford.

Already affiliated with big-money Roush Racing, Wood Brothers is being promised additional resources from Ford, Roush and primary sponsor Ford Motorcraft now that Rudd is driving. Rudd also will be reunited with crew chief Pat Tryson, who worked for Rudd in the late 1990s, when Rudd owned his own team.

"It's not a huge organization, it's not a multicar team concept," Rudd said. "I've been a part of that and, believe me, more of them don't work than do work.

"The Wood Brothers have certainly gotten better over the years, but they also have the assistance of the Roush camp. If we get to a racetrack and we're stumped for ideas, that information is available, and we can use that and tap that resource. So, I don't feel like we're here in the Wood Brothers camp, and it's us against the world."

Lately, that's how Rudd feels at Yates. With tensions high, Rudd's recent implication that the best engines were being held in reserve for next season led to a scuffle between he and an engine department employee, who later resigned. The incident, which left Rudd with a black eye, prompted many to suggest he and Sadler trade places right away.

But Rudd insists the core of the No. 28 team, including he and McSwain, have set aside their differences and remain focused on performance. He is 10th in the standings going into today's race at Dover, where he is tied with Martin and Rusty Wallace for most victories among active drivers with four.

"I haven't given up on the championship," Rudd said.

Though Sadler is 26th in points, Wood Brothers employees also have a bounce in their steps. The 50-year-old organization that dominated with David Pearson in the 1970s weathered another storm by landing Rudd.

"Everything about Ricky fits us," co-owner Eddie Wood said. "We just did the young driver development deal, so we were looking for a veteran who could come in and help our team. With his knowledge and experience, that brings a lot to the party."

It's been a long time since Rudd felt like a party.

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