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Published: Saturday, 6/15/2002

Rudd at fork in road

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Ricky Rudd prepares for his qualifying run for tomorrow's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at MIS. He placed 26th, checking in at 186.263 mph. Ricky Rudd prepares for his qualifying run for tomorrow's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 at MIS. He placed 26th, checking in at 186.263 mph.
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BROOKLYN, Mich. - The issues weigh heavily on both sides of the scale as Ricky Rudd looks for an imbalance, something that will distinctively tell him what road he needs to travel as he weighs his future in the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

It's no secret anymore - although Rudd planned that it would be - that he is contemplating retirement when his contract with Robert Yates Racing expires at the end of this season.

The immediate dilemma is that the timeline has changed. The start-finish line is closer than anticipated. Decisions are due at breakneck speeds, which is the pace when one is considering such an important decision.

“I think he [Yates] would like to have me back. He said he would. That's not the issue,” said Rudd, who qualified 26th at 186.263 mph yesterday for tomorrow's Sirius Satellite Radio 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

“The issue is, can he afford to wait until mid-July for the answer? Can I afford to push that timeline up and make a bad decision? It's a daily process.”

The answer to the first question is “No.” Rudd, 45, said he'll make his decision in the next two or three weeks. He told Yates months ago that he was contemplating retirement and would let him know one way or the other by July 15 so Yates could go driver shopping.

The reason for moving the entire process up is that job-hunting drivers are shopping now for top-notch teams, such as Robert Yates Racing, that also includes driver Dale Jarrett. They're giving Yates ultimatums, such as, “Sign me up now or I'm going to explore other options.”

Yates said recently that it's Rudd's timeline, not his, adding, “We didn't want to hang out the vacancy sign, but it's out. All along, I think it's been our hopes that he'd say, `Hey, I'm in for another year.' I'm not pressuring him to do that because this is a sport that's tough enough as it is.”

One driver Yates reportedly has shown strong interest in is Elliott Sadler, who recently said he wanted released from his contract with the Wood Brothers team at the end of the season.

“I think Robert was content to go along with the original plan,” Rudd said. “What changed that is when Elliott Sadler decided to leave the team he was with even though he had another year on his contract. He tried to get out of the contract in a panic, for whatever reason, and that sort of set things in motion.

“He's showed potential to be a good driver, he's won a race [Bristol last year] and he's someone who, if I had a team, I would want to take a look at. All of a sudden there's a sense of urgency. When that starts it's like a chain reaction.

“From Robert's standpoint, he's thinking, `If this guy [Rudd] gets gone, who else is available?' There's a couple of guys out there equally as talented as Elliott who could get the job done. All of a sudden that quiet time for me to make my decision has moved up.”

Rudd said the whole issue of his retirement was something he never intended to make public until it was completed, adding, “Now it looks like, `Gosh, he's keeping us all waiting, wondering what's going to happen.' If I make that decision in a couple of weeks, that I want to remain in racing, this is definitely the team I would want to be with. The question is, is there a spot here for me when I make that decision?”

Answering his own question, Rudd, said, “That's questionable. I don't know exactly what goes on. I think you have some drivers putting pressure on Robert.”

Rudd is Winston Cup's all-time Ironman with a record 656th consecutive start three weeks ago in the Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C. He has won a total of 22 Winston Cup races and has finished in the top five in points five times, including the last two. He also shares with Rusty Wallace the modern-era record with 16 straight seasons with at least one Winston Cup victory.

Rudd said his situation with Yates won't dictate what decision he makes.

“This would be my No. 1 choice if I come back, but if I open the paper in the morning and they have signed another driver, once I've made the decision, if I'm in, I would look at the other teams that are available.

“Running up front is like the best anti-retirement tool in the world,” he added. “It reminds you why you're here with Robert Yates Racing, running up front and being competitive. We've had that for quite a while here.”

Rudd has not won a race this season, but is eighth in Winston Cup points because he has run up front. He should have at least three victories, including two in the last two weeks.

He had a tire give out while leading with six laps remaining last Sunday at Pocono, giving the victory to his teammate, Jarrett. Two weeks ago at Dover, Del., a loose wheel cost Rudd another excellent chance for victory. He dominated at Richmond early last month until getting collected in a Wallace spin and crash.

Rudd said winning any one of those races wouldn't have influenced his decision in regard to retirement.

“I think it's just a matter of when is it time,” he said. “Something you have to consider is that sooner or later there's going to be a time when my performance goes down hill. I don't when that is. It might at 46, 50, or 60. I don't know.

“One of my biggest fears is staying in too long. Some of my predecessors have hung in a little too long.”



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