Owner-Driver Days Are Numbered

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Ricky Rudd is glad it's over. Bill Elliott can't wait for the end.

The last of the big winners to quit as owner-drivers on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit just didn't have enough time to do two jobs and couldn't get enough sponsor money to stay competitive.

"This sport don't look at owner-drivers as a viable deal," said Elliott, who after this season will fold Bill Elliott Racing and drive for Ray Evernham. "This sport's outgrown where we can go, what we can do."

Elliott is a year behind Rudd, who closed 6-year-old Rudd Performance Motorsports after Tide left. Now he drives for Robert Yates, and says he couldn't be happier.

That's evident in the series standings, where Rudd is sixth to Bobby Labonte after finishing a dismal 31st in 1999.

"I'm so glad I don't have to worry about predicting what the cost of racing's going to be this year, two years and three years down the road," Rudd said. "Last year, we were trying to run on $4 million and we're up against guys with $8 million to $10 million.

"I think it shocked our sponsor when we asked for twice as much."

Tide responded last July 4 by declaring its independence from RPM and putting its logo on a car fielded for the first time by veteran CART owner Cal Wells III. Wells will campaign a second car next season, financed primarily by McDonald's, which is shutting down Elliott's crew.

Like Rudd, Elliott knows that the three main commitments of an owner-driver are running the team, driving the car and making personal and business appearances. Both drivers were stretched too thin.

"It's hard to maintain your presence in the marketplace," Elliott said. "It just got to be too big a business."

The 1988 series champion is finishing his sixth season as an owner-driver. He is a mediocre 16th in points this year after a decline more dramatic than that of Rudd.

Elliott got the most recent of his 40 career victories in the Southern 500 in 1994. As an owner-driver, he enters the New England 300 on Sunday in Loudon, N.H., winless in 170 races.

He says big-bucks sponsorship money is going to the megateams.

"The rest of us, it's going to be like you get what's left lying on the counter, and there ain't going to be much left," Elliott said.

Just last weekend at Daytona, the makers of Viagra bought the rights to repaint Mark Martin's car for what is believed to be one of the richest deals in Winston Cup racing. Pfizer Inc. has been sponsoring the car driven by rookie Mike Bliss.

Next year, Pfizer moves to the upper echelon of NASCAR, paying Roush Racing about $14 million a season to billboard Martin's car. That's about what DuPont spends on three-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

"I've seen it go from where sponsorship wasn't $100,000 a year to now where they're getting $15 million to $20 million. I just can't fathom that," Elliott said.

Rudd said the haves simply wear down the have-nots on and off the track. Despite 20 career victories, he became a have-not.

"We were on the higher end," he said recalling his initial backing from Tide. "As time went on, we didn't get the funding and we slipped to the bottom. Then we went away."

So did his series-record streak of winning at least once in 16 straights seasons.

"NASCAR's biggest challenge is to make it so a guy without a sponsor in double digits can still be competitive," said Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer.

After a quarter-century each in the business, Elliott and Rudd can't see how that can happen.

"You've got to have deep enough pockets to stand whatever it takes," Elliott said. "I can't keep up with the changes."

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