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Rudd finds time for Mickey

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2000


DAYTONA BEACH -- What's the difference between a driver and a driver/owner?

The week before his team gets to Daytona International Speedway for the start of Speedweeks, the driver/owner is stuck behind a desk, phone in ear, making final arrangements.

The driver? He's at Disney World with his family, touring the Magic Kingdom.

That's exactly how it was for Ricky Rudd, who will drive the Texaco/Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing after six years as a driver/owner.

Talk about a fantasy land.

"I've been out of touch with everything," Rudd said Thursday. "It's almost like I've been on vacation for a week. I'm anxious to get back."

No kidding. Rudd's 16-year winning streak came to an end last season. But he saw such improvement after signing with Yates and using Yates' engines during the final five races, Rudd is more confident than he has been in years.

"I don't want to predict a championship," the 43-year-old said, "but I wouldn't want to bet against it. It's a matter of how everything jells."

There shouldn't be much of a learning curve. Rudd has 20 Cup victories and 24 poles. He said he will drive more aggressively because he won't be worn out from worrying about things like making payroll and funding 401(k) plans.

This year, he said, it's all about "taking advantage of what's under the hood."

"I didn't realize the difference until we started testing," Rudd said. "I felt like I hadn't done enough. I felt like I hadn't even worked up a sweat yet."

EARNHARDT'S EXTENSION: Dale Earnhardt announced his contract with Richard Childress Racing has been extended through 2003. Earnhardt has won 67 Winston Cup races and six points titles since hooking up with Childress in 1984.

The announcement had been expected since October, when Earnhardt said he and Childress were close to a deal.

"I never planned on going anywhere," Earnhardt said. "I told everyone all along that we were in the process of extending, but just didn't get around to it until now."

As for his plans after 2003, the seven-time champion, who had back surgery in December, said: "I don't plan on retiring. I would like to drive for maybe five or six years. We'll see how many championships we've won between now and 2003 and then decide about our future."

MARTIN PICKS POLE: Defending champ Mark Martin will start on the pole for Sunday's Bud Shootout after drawing the position Thursday morning. Sterling Marlin drew the outside pole.

The 25-lap sprint features last season's Bud Pole Award winners and the winner of Sunday's Bud Pole Shootout qualifier, which will have Ricky Craven on the pole.

"It's not a big strategy race, not a big driver-skill race or anything else," said Martin, who had back surgery in November. "It has everything to do with the way NASCAR kicks off its season and treats its fans."

PETTY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS: Adam Petty hedged when asked if he will move from the Busch Series to Winston Cup next year. "We've got a decision, but we just haven't made an announcement yet," Kyle Petty's 19-year-old son said.

"Sounds like we might see you there," an acquaintance said.

"I don't know, you might," he said, smiling. "You never can tell."

ROOKIE REWARDS: Raybestos, sponsor of rookie of the year awards in Winston Cup and Busch, announced it doubled both first-place prizes to $50,000 and $12,000, respectively.

RESPECT YOUR ELDERS: John Andretti remembers his rookie run at the Daytona 500, and he wants revenge.

"Nobody drafted with me because they said I was a rookie," he said. "So I'm not going to draft with them. But they better draft with me because I'm a veteran."

OTHER TRACKS: Team Rahal teammates Max Papis and Kenny Brack raced the fastest laps, topping two days of testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Papis, entering his second season with the team co-owned by former driving champion Bobby Rahal and TV host Dave Letterman, led the way on the 1 1/2-mile oval with a lap of 209.907 mph in a Reynard-Ford. The Italian driver was also fast on Wednesday at 206.044. ... Dario Franchitti, injured in a crash Wednesday during testing at Homestead-Miami, could be released from Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami as early as Saturday. Franchitti suffered fractures of the left hip and pelvis and multiple small contusions of the brain. ... Longtime CART official J. Kirk Russell has succeeded retiring Wally Dallenbach as chief steward. ... Car owner Roger Penske apparently has changed his mind and will not bring his CART team to the Indianapolis 500. ... Alexander Wurz was fastest on the third day of Formula One testing: 1:21.2 seconds in 85 laps of the Barcelona circuit, 0.2 seconds faster than McLaren's David Coulthard.

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