After a disappointing start with Wood Brothers Racing, the road-course expert is ready for Sunday's race at Sonoma.
By GREG AUMAN
Published June 21, 2003
That Ricky Rudd feels at home on a road course is pure NASCAR poetry, given the unexpected twists and turns he has navigated in the past year.
If most of his 28 seasons in Winston Cup have been like routine, high-speed ovals, then 2003 has been more like the Infineon Raceway he'll compete on Sunday. Rudd likes road courses, winning six times on them, but he hasn't enjoyed the slow pace that has typified his first season with Wood Brothers Racing.
"It's been tough, but not just on me, probably on the Wood Brothers also," said Rudd, 46, who has one top-10 showing in 15 races. "We all had a lot of high expectations, and we really expected to be farther ahead than we are right now."
Rudd ranks 27th in the points standings, putting him at risk of finishing out of the top 10 for the first time since 1999. After a bitter breakup with Robert Yates Racing last season, Rudd finds himself trailing Yates drivers Elliott Sadler (his replacement) and Dale Jarrett.
That could change on the 11-turn course at Sonoma, Calif., where Rudd won in the series' first stop there in 1989 and again last year. NASCAR has two road courses on its schedule, this weekend and at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) in August, but for Rudd, it's a chance to jump-start his new team with another strong showing.
"We definitely need a good finish," said Rudd, who hasn't started a race from the top 15 since the Daytona 500 in February. "That would be the shot in the arm that this team needs. Sonoma is a good place for that."
His first Winston Cup road race was at Riverside (Calif.) in 1981, six seasons into his 23-win career, and he recalls surprising himself by leading before blowing an engine with 18 laps to go.
"Right from the beginning, road courses have been good to me," Rudd said. "At a young age, I was used to turning left and right. I'm not really sure why, but probably because I came up on road courses with go-karts and later on motorcycles. Using different lines as the track deteriorates or gets greasy, I learned that from motorcycles. So the first time I got in a car I was very comfortable on a road course."
Two weeks ago, he tested his Ford on a road course in Kershaw, S.C., but much of his road-course savvy is a detailed memory of how to handle each of Infineon's turns. He has a track-record four poles at Sonoma and nine top-five finishes in 14 races on the 1.99-mile track. He can run through his technique for each turn like a golfer recalling a memorable round, hole by hole, shot by shot.
"Ninety percent of the passing goes on as you enter Turn 11," Rudd said this week. "You're in third gear and you grab second; you grab first gear and then you bend to the right. It's a very, very sharp corner. The cars don't tend to handle real well there because it's so slow and very, very tight. You steer it into the corner, but you end up sliding it off at the exit of the corner.
"The biggest thing you want to do there is that you want to have the car accelerate without spinning the tires. If you overheat your rear tires, you'll pay the price later on in the race, at least in that tire run."
Knowing the course is a crucial asset - Rudd's victory last year was made possible when Jerry Nadeau slid off course in Turn 11, three laps from the finish.
A win Sunday would not only get Rudd's season back on track, but it would tie him with Jeff Gordon for the most career road-course victories (seven) in Cup history.
"I guess the biggest thing is keeping everybody's chin up and keep going with it," he said. "These guys haven't given up and we are working hard, and I'm confident right now that we've got a consistent top-10 car. We've just got to get some finishes to prove it."